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Buckeyes head to Big Ten championship behind 37 points from Lavender

INDIANAPOLIS — The Ohio State women’s basketball team will play Sunday to defend its back-to-back Big Ten Tournament titles.

No. 5-seeded OSU (21-9) defeated No. 1-seeded Michigan State (26-5), 72-57, at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis to advance to Sunday’s Big Ten championship game.

The Buckeyes’ victory was fueled by 37 points from senior center Jantel Lavender, who set the Big Ten Tournament single-game scoring record. Lavender also became the Big Ten Tournament’s all-time leading scorer with 211 points in nine career games.

The contest appeared an intensely personal one for the Buckeyes. Junior guard Samantha Prahalis, who was booed heavily throughout the evening, pointed to Michigan State’s fan section after sinking two first-half free throws.

Sophomore guard Tayler Hill said the rowdiness of the Spartans’ crowd inside Conseco Fieldhouse was nothing new.

“Whenever we play Michigan State there’s always an atmosphere like that,” she said. “It’s nothing new. I expected their fans to be loud and I knew our fans are always supportive. Anytime we play it’s a nice crowd.”

Perhaps using fan support as inspiration, the Spartans rode an early wave of momentum to a lead.

Michigan State was spurred on early by senior forward Kalisha Keane and junior forward Lykendra Johnson. Keane, Co-Big Ten Player of the Year, helped lead the Spartans to a 12-4 lead with 15:22 to play in the first half.

It took Lavender, the other half of the Co-Big Ten Player of the Year equation, nearly 12 minutes to score her first points in OSU’s quarterfinal-round game against Iowa on Friday night.

But on Saturday, it took only 12:40 for Lavender to surpass her 11-point total from the previous night. She wasn’t satisfied with bettering her scoring output from the game against the Hawkeyes, though.

Saturday’s battle of the conference’s Co-Players of the Year was a different story altogether for the Lavender.

Keane was reliable for the Spartans, scoring 11 points on 4-for-9 shooting from the field. She went on to finish with a game-high 17 points on 6-for-20 shooting.

Lavender was better.

Lavender made nine of her 10 first-half shots and raked in 21 points in the process. Lavender’s offensive explosion helped the Buckeyes to a 43-33 halftime lead.

After the intermission, the Spartans began to chip away at their 10-point deficit.

Johnson helped spark a 14-4 run on the offensive end of the floor to pull Michigan State into a tie, 47-47, with 13:39 to play.

Johnson also lived up to her Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year award, denying Lavender opportunities in the low post. With 11:14 to play, Johnson had limited Lavender to one second-half basket.

With less than 10 minutes to play, Lavender offered to help Johnson off the court after knocking her down. Johnson scorned the offer, though, waving Lavender away. The Buckeyes’ center was visibly frustrated after the exchange.

The battle between Big Ten postseason award winners had transformed — now it was Lavender versus Johnson.

Lavender said her team picked a strategy and stuck to it in order to overcome Johnson’s defense.

“That’s why we had to really emphasize reversing the ball, so I could get a deeper position on the block,” Lavender said. “They got me the ball in great positions and it worked out.”

That strategy helped Lavender to another offensive explosion.

Scoring 14 points during a 17-4 run, Lavender helped the Buckeyes to a 64-51 lead with less than six minutes to play.

Lavender was winning the battle with Johnson as well. The Buckeyes’ center burned Johnson for 15-for-20 shooting by game’s end. Lavender’s 15 field goals tied the Big Ten Tournament single-game record.

Johnson said she pulled out all the stops while defending against Lavender.

“She’s a very solid player,” Johnson said. “I was trying to do anything and everything I (could) just to stop her.”

It was beginning to look as though the Buckeyes would win the most important battle of all — the game itself.

Lavender hit a side-angle, 15-foot jumper with just more than a minute to play, extending OSU’s lead to 72-57. The Buckeyes watched the clock run out and held that score constant for the win.

The Spartans had the emotional lift from their fans Saturday night, but that wasn’t enough. OSU coach Jim Foster said it’s going to take more than emotion to compete with his Buckeyes.

“We’re smart enough, patient enough,” Foster said. “Good teams don’t get real high and don’t get real low. We just go about our business.”

After the game, Lavender said she enjoys the rigorous Big Ten Tournament schedule.

“It’s fun to play the three games in three days,” she said. “I think this tournament is a good thing on our résumé to show that we have toughness. I just like playing at Conseco Fieldhouse.”

OSU still has one more goal to accomplish before calling it a weekend in Indianapolis.

Sunday’s Big Ten championship game against No. 2-seeded Penn State (24-8) is scheduled to tip off at 3:30 p.m. The Lady Lions defeated No. 11-seeded Illinois, 79-64, to advance to the championship game, which will be televised nationally on ESPN2.

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