No. 10 Ohio St. 66, Illinois 55

Ohio State’s Jantel Lavender was strong and dominant in the

post. Samantha Prahalis relied on her all-conference quickness to

control the perimeter.

Just like the Buckeyes have come to expect from their strong

tag-team tandem.

One problem against Illinois: Ohio State’s other players weren’t

themselves Friday night.

The 10th-ranked Buckeyes had to continually fend off Illinois’

comebacks before finally pulling away in the final minute for a

66-55 win in the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals.

“In the first half, I think we were rushing a little bit,”

Lavender said. “As far as me in the post, I don’t think I was

getting as deep as I should have. It was physical. Once I made that

adjustment with getting deeper in the lane, I think it turned

around a little bit.”

With Lavender, even on an off-night, the Buckeyes (28-4) can

overcome almost anything.

No, the conference’s three-time player of the year didn’t get

her usual double-double. She finished with 19 points and six

rebounds. She also forced Illinois’ top scorer, Jenna Smith, to

catch the ball farther away from the basket than Smith would have

liked.

Prahalis added 13 points and eight assists and constantly

menaced Illinois in the passing lanes, while Brittany Johnson hit

three 3-pointers and finished with 13 points.

But the Buckeyes had an off-night shooting. They made just 40

percent from the field, including 6 for 22 from 3-point range, got

outrebounded 45-34 and struggled to wrap up the victory.

It was the third straight year a ninth-seeded Illinois team met

the top-seeded Buckeyes in the quarterfinals, with the Illini

winning two years ago and the Buckeyes returning the favor last

season. Now the defending tourney champions will face fourth-seeded

Wisconsin in Saturday’s semifinal. The Badgers defeated Purdue

73-51.

“Some days, you’re going to make a lot of shots, some days

you’re not,” said Ohio State coach Jim Foster, who has won a

record six straight Big Ten regular-season titles. “They’re a

very, very good defensive team. They’re a very good basketball

team.”

Starting with Smith.

The senior forward had 13 points and 11 rebounds in her final

conference game, enough rebounds to break Lynnette Robinson’s

nearly three-decade-old single-season record at Illinois. But Smith

also fell three frustrating points short of becoming the school’s

career scoring leader.

Ashley Berggren scored 2,089 points with the Illini. Smith has

2,087, a mark she could still get if the Illini (16-14) earn a

postseason bid.

“Yeah, we were aware,” coach Jolette Law said. “She started

getting some shots. We were trying to win the ballgame, but I also

wanted her to get some shots. She needed a couple points. She had a

couple looks, they just didn’t go in.”

Lacey Simpson had 13 points, seven rebounds and four assists for

the Illini but she also fell two steals short of moving into second

place on the Big Ten’s career list.

The numbers didn’t bother the Illini. Losing to the Buckeyes for

the third time this season did.

“I can’t describe how it feels,” Smith said when asked about

the likelihood of finishing her career without an NCAA tourney

appearance. “It just hurts to know we haven’t been there. We did

what we could all four years.”

But Smith, Simpson & Co. couldn’t outdo the Buckeyes in

Indy.

Ohio State opened the game by building a 17-7 lead and twice in

the first half had chances to put Illinois in even bigger holes.

Instead, Illinois rallied, cutting a 22-12 deficit to 24-19 and

then staying within 33-24 at the half even after the Buckeyes went

on a 7-0 run.

Illinois opened the second half with five straight points, to

make it 34-29. The Buckeyes answered that with an 11-4 run and

extended the lead to 55-39 with 8:46 to go.

Game over, right?

Wrong.

The Illini charged back with a 14-2 run over 3 1/2 minutes to

close within 57-51.

Ohio State closed it out with free throws in the final

minute.

“I think when they made that last run and they were coming at

us, we switched out of our zone and went man and I think we did it

very aggressively and very soundly. It disrupted their

continuity.”