When ESPN selected tonight’s game between Ohio State and Penn State to be one of their Monday night games before the season started, people may have questioned why they would have chosen a matchup between the preseason conference favorite Nittany Lions and a Buckeye squad that was not picked to finish in the top four of the Big Ten. Now that decision looks like a brilliant one as tonight’s game featured a showdown between the two teams atop the conference standings and the top two offensive teams in the Big Ten.
The game opened as expected with both teams trading baskets while playing at a high tempo. Penn State features a talented group of guards but took a page out of Minnesota’s playbook by attacking inside. With the game tied at 9 the inside attack started paying dividends as not only where the Nittany Lions making baskets, they were drawing fouls, igniting a 9 to 0 run to give Penn State an 18-9 lead six and half minutes into the game. The Buckeyes finally got their offense going but they couldn’t stop the Penn State attack for more than a possession or two at a time. OSU got the Penn State lead down to five at one point and to four at another point but both times the Nittany Lions came roaring back to quickly extend the lead. After the Buckeyes pulled to within four, 28-24, with seven minutes remaining, Penn State promptly went on 13 to 2 run to extend their lead to 41-26 with just under two to go. That margin survived the rest of the half and Penn State went into the locker room with a 45-30 lead.
Coming into this game much of the talk was about the need for Ohio State to stop Penn State guards Alexis Bentley and Maggie Lucas. While Bentley’s blazing speed got her some nice drives to the basket which hurt the Buckeyes, most of the damage was done by the Penn State bigs which seemed to operate with impunity in the paint. OSU was unable to stop the Nittany Lions from scoring in the paint and their efforts to do so quickly got them in foul trouble, PSU was in the bonus at the midpoint of the first half. The frustrations on the defensive end seemed to carry over to the Buckeye offense which started rushing shots and stopped playing with any flow. Making matters worse OSU once again struggled with rebounding.
The second half did not get off to a good start for Ohio State as they quickly picked up three fouls and Penn State extended its lead to 53-34 just two and half minutes into the second period. The Buckeyes briefly cut the lead to fifteen only to have the Nittany Lions push it back to twenty. From that point on Penn State was in complete control as the best the Buckeyes could do was briefly cut the lead down to 15 one more time. In the end Penn State walked away with an easy 84-66 win.
Samantha Prahalis and Tayler Hill each scored 16 points for Ohio State. Prahalis added 8 assists and 2 steals but also committed 5 turnovers. Kalpana Beach reached double figures for the second game in a row as she scored 12 points. Center Ashley Adams added 6 points and 5 blocks.
Tonight was easily the worst game of the season for Ohio State as everything that could go wrong did. The Buckeyes could not defend the paint, allowing the Nittany Lions to essentially score at will inside. OSU found itself in foul trouble early in both halves which not only gave PSU numerous chances at the free throw line, it forced Buckeye starters to the bench early; Amber Stokes found herself on the bench with two fouls less than four minutes into the game and Kalpana Beach picked up her fourth foul early in the second half. The Buckeyes allowed their defensive struggles to impact the rest of their game as they looked frustrated, forcing up shots and playing without any since of rhythm or cohesion. Finally, the rebounding struggles that have plagued the team for most of the season showed up again tonight as Penn State out-rebounded OSU 54 to 29.
While tonight’s loss does not mathematically eliminate Ohio State from getting a share of the Big Ten regular season championship, that trophy is gone in every realistic sense. The Buckeyes are still in second place in the conference but are now a game and a half behind Penn State. OSU would need PSU to lose their only remaining game, a home game against Minnesota, and the Buckeyes would need to win out in a home game against a Minnesota team that beat them once and then on the road at a very good Nebraska team. While a second, or even third, place finish is still far better than Ohio State was expected to do this season, it is immensely disappointing for a team that got off to the best start in program history. While there is still a chance at a regular season title, I am not more concerned with whether or not Ohio State can pull itself out of the late season fade that it seems to be on as they have lost three of the last six games. This team has showed that they are amazingly talented and can not only win the Big Ten tournament but make a deep run in the NCAA tournament. However, the Buckeyes have hit a wall as of late and they need to show marked improvement in several areas of play as well as consistency if they want to make any sort of post-season noise.
The Buckeyes return to action on Thursday as they host Minnesota in the final home game of the season and of Samantha Prahalis’s career. The game will tip at 8:00pm and will be broadcast on BTN.