After two straight wins over teams that are contenders for the Big Ten title, today’s game against Illinois had all the makings of a trap game for Ohio State. The Illini came into the game winless in the conference and tied for last place. That winless record was a bit deceiving however as Illinois had already given scares to ranked Purdue and Penn State; in fact, the Illini had only been outscored in regulation by 11 points in their last 5 games combined.
The game opened as a back and forth affair as the two teams traded baskets. Illinois held a 15-14 lead about eight minutes into the game when Ohio State scored 11 straight to take a 25-15 lead. The Illini responded with an 11 to 5 run to cut the lead to 30-26 with just over six minutes remaining in the half. The two teams traded baskets for the rest of the half with the Buckeyes able to stretch their lead to 44-36 as the horn sounded for intermission.
The first eight minutes of the second half looked much like they did in the first half, with the two teams trading baskets. Ohio State led 61-52 when Illinois scored 5 straight to cut the OSU lead to four points. The Buckeyes quickly responded with an 8 to 2 run the extended their lead to 69-59 just past the midpoint of the second half. Illinois quickly cut the lead to four only to have the Buckeyes extend it back to 76-68 just as quickly. The Illini countered again, this time scoring 8 unanswered to tie the game at 76 with just over five minutes remaining in the game. With Illinois suddenly having all the momentum, Ohio State needed an answer and they found it from their two star guards as Tayler Hill and Samantha Prahalis hit three-pointers on back-to-back possessions. After an Illinois free-throw Prahalis hit another three-pointer to stretch the Buckeye lead to 85-77 with just over three minutes remaining. The sudden OSU surge seemed to break the spirit of the Illini as the Buckeyes coasted the rest of the way to a 96-84 win.
The Ohio State offense had a great day, shooting 56.9% from the floor and going 8 of 12 from beyond the arc, on the way to scoring a season high 96 points. The Buckeyes were led by Samantha Prahalis who scored 28 points, 10 after Illinois tied it late, while dishing out 6 assists and grabbing 5 rebounds. Tayler Hill was not far behind with 26 points of her own while also coming up with 3 steals. Amber Stokes scored a career high 16 points and grabbed 6 rebounds. Darryce Moore came off the bench to score 10 points although she unfortunately fouled out. After mostly being missing in action since the start of conference play, and for the first half of this game, Kalpana Beach came up with 8 key second half points while freshman Raven Ferguson put up 6 points while going a perfect 2 of 2 from three-point land.
The Buckeye defense struggled to stop the Illinois shooters who shot 53% from the floor, 46% from beyond the arc. Despite this, Ohio State was still very successful at pressuring the Illinois ball handlers, forcing 21 turnovers and grabbing 12 steals.
Illinois proved to be a much bigger challenge than their record suggested and Ohio State found themselves in a battle late in the game. Despite having lost all their momentum, the Buckeyes once again dug deep and found an answer, this time in an offensive explosion from the guards. This team continues to impress with their toughness and their ability to find answers in the face of adversity. Even with their opponent hitting shots, the Buckeye defense never let up, generating turnovers which were crucial in pulling out the victory.
In a season that has been filled with surprises from this team, Amber Stokes has provided the latest one. Previously regarded primarily as more of an energetic defensive specialist, the past several games have seen Stokes transform into a legitimate offensive threat. Stokes has scored in double figures in each of the last 4 games, averaging 12.5 points per game during that stretch. The duo of Prahalis and Hill had already made the OSU backcourt very scary and now the rise of Stokes has made that backcourt into a monster that must terrify other teams who will no longer be able to lay off of Stokes in order to put more pressure on the other two guards. If teams continue to overlook Amber’s offensive abilities, look for her production to continue to grow. Conversely, if opponents start to focus on Stokes more that should open up things for the Buckeye frontcourt. Thursday offers us the first chance to see what strategy opponents will use as Ohio State travels to Indiana to take on a Hoosier team that is winless in the Big Ten.