Despite three starters returning from a Sweet Sixteen squad that was coming off winning its third consecutive Big Ten Tournament crown, the Ohio State women’s basketball team went overlooked in the preseason by most coaches and media members both nationally and within the league.

The reason? The Buckeyes had lost All-America center Jantel Lavender, and followers of the sport were not sure her basketball shoes could be filled. 

Ohio State did not receive one vote in the Associated Press Preseason Top 25, and did not finish in the top three of the Big Ten preseason polls, but Buckeyes’ head coach Jim Foster was not worried. In fact, Foster was laughing on the inside.

“I knew how we were evolving and where we were going to take this team,” Foster said. “I knew all along we were going to be a very good basketball team. I was sort of chuckling to myself that those who weren’t in the gym had all these opinions about our players and it didn’t fit what I was seeing on a daily basis.”

I realized as I got older that the more positive you are, the more people respond to you.
-- Ohio State guard Samantha Prahalis

Yes, replacing Lavender – Ohio State’s all-time leading scorer and the only four-time Big Ten Player of the Year – was a challenge, and Foster knew it. But instead of substituting someone new into Lavender’s role, Foster decided to just work around the gaping hole in the middle and spread the offense.

Foster’s new approach highlights the play of his veteran guards – senior Samantha Prahalis and junior Tayler Hill – and has gotten the Buckeyes off to a 19-1 record and No. 9 ranking in the AP poll. 

Prahalis, the spirited point guard, leads the Big Ten and ranks eighth nationally with 6.9 assists per game, and has bumped her scoring average up to 18.7. Hill, who came to OSU as the all-time leading scorer in Minnesota high school basketball, is getting more opportunities and making the most of those chances and leads the team with 21.6 points per game.  Combining field goals made and assists, the duo has had a hand in more than 80 percent of Ohio State’s field goals this season (457 of 571).

Hill and Prahalis rank first and fourth in scoring, respectively, in the Big Ten highlighted by the pair’s 58-point performance against Iowa on Jan. 2. 

“They’re both unselfish and both very old-fashioned the fact they have developed in every aspect of the game – they are both very good ball handlers, they can pass the ball, they’re both very good 3-point shooters, they can both shoot pull-up jumpers off the dribble, they can take the ball to the basket, they both draw fouls and shoot a lot of free throws,” Foster said. “By opening up the court, they are able to do those things more often.”

“I think our team is really unselfish,” Prahalis said. “No one really has an ‘I’ attitude on our team – we know it is about all of us. Last year we worked hard, but maybe we relied too much on me and Jantel.  The ball moves a lot more now – it’s spread out. We’re making that extra pass.”

SEASON STATS: PRAHALIS AND HILL
 
Points Average 18.7 21.6
Assists Total 138 43
3-point % 33.3 45.1

Prahalis’ impact on the court was immediately felt since her arrival at Ohio State. She was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 2009, and built a reputation of being a fiery competitor that was known for no-look passes and shushing crowds on the road.  But as the Buckeyes’ lone senior, Prahalis has matured and learned to be a positive influence on the court.

“People know Sammy as a rowdy, feisty and very competitive, which is good, but I think this year she has shown a lot more leadership,” Hill said. “Your point guard is always a leader, but she has really grown into a great leader. She doesn’t get frustrated and talks to the kids instead of talking at the other players.  She’s a competitor at every level. Her heart and her want to win is a plus to play with.”

“I realized as I got older that the more positive you are, the more people respond to you,” Prahalis said.  “Talk to people, don’t yell at people.”

Hill, mainly a defensive-minded player last year, is now realizing her full potential on the offensive side of the court.

“[Tayler’s] stepped up in a big way,” Prahalis said.  “I knew she was going to mature and blossom.  She’s always been a great player in my eyes.  We’ve had a lot of weapons in the past years, but now you can clearly see Tayler playing great for us. She shoots the ball really well and she is a great defender as well.” 

The Buckeyes are not only thriving in the win column with the new offense.  This year’s scoring average (78.8) ranks 7th in the nation, and is a few notches above last year’s 74.1 points per game. Ohio State’s assist-to-turnover ratio is also a tad better than the 2011 team, and checks in at fourth nationally with a 1.31 mark. 

“Our guards are the veterans,” Foster said.  “They’re very comfortable with what we’ve tweaked to play to the strengths of everybody.”

Both Prahalis and Hill are having fun on the court, and think they are playing an exciting brand of basketball. And Foster likes what he sees.

“I’m enjoying watching this group because they function so well together,” Foster said. “They play hard, they’re committed. I like the way they share the ball, and how they can for the most part figure out what will work that evening.”

And while the Buckeyes’s 15-0 start to the season was the best in program history, Hill says that the squad doesn’t mind flying a little under the radar.

“We like playing the role of the underdog,” Hill said.  “At the beginning of the season it really fueled our fire and motivated us to play to another level. We wanted to show people that just because Jantel was gone didn’t mean we didn’t have any potential.”