After clinching last season’s Big Ten regular season title with four games to go, Jim Foster’s team is fighting for survival and a spot in the NCAA Tournament with four games left this time around.
Being ranked as high as No. 6 on Nov. 22, Ohio State (15-9, 6-6 Big Ten) has been streaky and unpredictable during conference play. But a strong run during its last four conference games could spring the team back into the tournament picture.
Foster said the urgency the team will need to have down the home stretch is critical because last season’s team wasn’t mentally prepared for the rigors of the postseason.
“They hadn’t experienced it,” Foster said. “That’s how you develop some character; that’s how you develop some toughness; that’s how you become a better player and a better team.”
Last season ended in the NCAA Tournament’s second round when Mississippi State upset the second-seeded Buckeyes.
“We just didn’t have a sense of urgency. … We already won the conference and were looking at the Big Ten Tournament,” senior center Jantel Lavender said of the team’s mindset this time last year. “We didn’t play as hard as we should have, and now everyone’s playing on edge and we can’t lose games.”
Lavender became OSU’s all-time leading scorer on Sunday after adding 29 points and bringing her total to 2,587 in its 83-76 win Sunday against Minnesota (11-14, 3-9).
“It means a lot. I think it’s something I’ll never forget,” Lavender said. “I think it shows my dedication to my teammates and what I want to do for my team. … I just try to play hard for my team all the time.”
After winning two straight conference games against Purdue (17-9, 7-6) and the Golden Gophers, the Buckeyes are hoping to keep the momentum rolling when they host Penn State (21-6, 10-3) on Thursday.
In its previous encounter, Jan. 30 in State College, Pa., OSU fell, 80-71, to the Lady Lions when Penn State’s backcourt of Alex Bentley and Maggie Lucas combined for 39 points.
Foster said Wednesday that the team must do a better job of preventing Bentley from penetrating and kicking the ball out to Lucas, who made 6 of 8 3-point attempts in that contest.
Although Foster had questioned his team’s defensive intensity, he said he thought it was increasing lately. Senior guard Brittany Johnson said in addition to improving defensively, the team is becoming more cohesive on the offensive end.
“I think we’re starting to mesh really well; we’re moving the ball. Last Penn State game we weren’t really moving the ball,” Johnson said. “It’s starting to come back. We’re starting to mesh, and it’s coming down to the end of the season and we’re playing really well right now.”
Thursday’s tipoff is scheduled for 7 p.m. at the Schottenstein Center.