Ohio State can't help but look ahead to Huskies
When the NCAA women's pairings were announced, Ohio State couldn't help but look far down its Dayton Regional bracket and see unbeaten and top-ranked Connecticut. Sigh.
About the same time, Mississippi State couldn't help but glance one game down the same bracket and see Ohio State. Again.
Second-seeded Ohio State was rewarded for its 30-4 season with a relatively short trip to Pittsburgh for its first two tournament games, unless 15th-seeded St. Francis somehow pulls off one of the biggest upsets in tournament history by winning Sunday.
And if seventh-seeded Mississippi State eliminates 10th-seeded Middle Tennessee State and national scoring leader Alysha Clark, the Lady Bulldogs would meet Ohio State in the tournament for the second successive season. Plenty of incentive there.
The key, of course, is not looking ahead, as tempting as it may be.
``It's definitely hard, but if we focus on what's at hand, you won't see them (the Huskies) so you've really got to focus,'' Buckeyes guard Samantha Prahalis said.
After all, backup guard Shavelle Little said, it's only what the Buckeyes have been playing for all season, the chance to beat the team that supposedly can't be beaten.
Ohio State, No. 8 in the AP poll, is the only nationally ranked team in the four-team Pittsburgh field.
``It's important for us to play hard and play with a lot of intensity,'' Little said. ``We've played all season to get to this point. My first year (in 2007) we lost to Marist, so that shows you right there. It doesn't matter where you're seeded, you've got to go out and play. Everybody at this point is really good.''
St. Francis, the Northeast Conference champion, is taking the shortest road to Pittsburgh of the four teams, only 76 miles. Host team Pitt expected to be playing on its home court, but it didn't make the field after reaching the round of 16 last season.
As a result, Pitt is concerned about possibly sparse attendance, especially since neither Mississippi State (19-12) nor Middle Tennessee State (25-5) is expected to be accompanied by many fans.
St. Francis (17-14) - 0-9 with no close games in their NCAA tournament history - expects to bring only about 300 fans to the Petersen Events Center.
Ohio State's plan is to create enough excitement on its own that the lack of a big crowd won't matter. The Buckeyes are finding incentive anywhere they can; three-time Big Ten player of the year Jantel Lavender wasn't happy when an ESPN announcer mispronounced her first name last week.
``We've just got to take care of the necessary steps for us to play in the game against UConn,'' she said. ``I think we can do it. If we come out ferocious and play hard, we can do it.''
The 6-foot-4 Lavender averages 21.4 points and 10.2 rebounds, but won't be the leading scorer on the floor Sunday - that's Clark, who averages 27.5 points.
The 5-foot-10 Clark put on a remarkable performance by scoring 132 points during the Blue Raiders' three Sun Belt Conference victories - 40 against North Texas, 44 against Western Kentucky and 48 against Arkansas-Little Rock during her team's 16th consecutive victory.
Tennessee coach Pat Summitt was so impressed by Clark earlier this season, she said, ``They have a gold mine in that player.''
Last year, the Blue Raiders nearly pulled off an NCAA upset of Michigan State - they lost 60-59 in East Lansing. At least this time, they'll get to play a power conference school on a neutral court.
Mississippi State starts four seniors, all of whom are eager to win to get another chance at Ohio State. The Lady Bulldogs led the Buckeyes 58-54 with 6:43 to play last year in Columbus, but didn't score again while losing 64-58.
Alexis Rack leads Mississippi State with a 17.7 scoring average.