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COLUMBUS, Ohio – Ohio State's best player says things can't get any worse for the Buckeyes.
"You can't get any lower than this; you can only go higher," Tayler Hill said softly. "We can only go up from this point."
The perennial powerhouse dropped to a stunning 1-6 in Big Ten play — and tied for last — with Sunday's 71-56 loss to No. 8 Penn State at home.
Everyone associated with the team is mystified but also discouraged by the season. The Buckeyes were a sterling 132-9 in Columbus in the eight previous years under coach Jim Foster. Yet they've lost two of the last three at Value City Arena and have dropped games to losing teams (Wisconsin, Washington State) that have many scratching their heads.
Adding to the enigma that is the current team is that it is capable of playing superbly. The Buckeyes (11-9, 1-6) ended the half on a 10-0 run and when Hill scored the first basket of the second half led 39-28.
But then the roof caved in.
"We certainly can't be a 20-minute basketball team," said a frustrated Foster, who has a glittering 776-302 (.719) record in his 35th year as a head coach at Saint Joseph's, Vanderbilt and Ohio State. "We have to grind a lot better than we grinded in the second half. There's some players getting opportunities and you need to take advantage of your opportunity."
Hill certainly is. She played every second of the game, scoring 28 points to add to her Big Ten-leading average and adding two assists, two blocked shots and a steal.
Freshman point guard Ameryst Alston added 12 points but was victimized by the veterans from Penn State (17-2, 7-0) for six turnovers.
In one of the few glimmers of good news to filter through the loss, the Buckeyes regained the services of senior guard Amber Stokes, who had missed the last four games with a sprained knee. She received a loud ovation when she entered the game and quickly hit two jumpers.
But the Buckeyes shot just 35 percent from the field, missed eight free throws and committed 16 turnovers that resulted in 22 points for the Nittany Lions. Teams already teetering on the brink cannot afford those kinds of mistakes against a quality opponent and expect to win.
One Penn State possession encapsulated the lack of focus and diligence by the Buckeyes.
With the game still in doubt early in the second half, Penn State missed two field goal attempts, hit two of four free throws and got a 3-pointer from Maggie Lucas — all on one trip down the court, thanks to two offensive rebounds off missed free throws in the same sequence. When Alex Bentley then stole the ball on the next play and hit the coast-to-coast layup, the Nittany Lions had made up seven points in 33 seconds with the ball barely leaving Penn State's end of the floor.
"It's attitudinal. You've got to be tougher," he said, referring as much to one lapse in the second half as to his team in general. "You've got to want to work through it and you've got to fight."
With the Buckeyes hanging on to a 41-39 lead, the Nittany Lions took the lead for good with a 9-0 run.
Nikki Greene, who had 11 points and 13 rebounds, tied it before Lucas, who scored 14 of her 18 points in the second half, made it 43-41 on a jumper in the lane. After Ohio State missed four straight attempts from the field, Ariel Edwards raced to the hoop for a layup in transition and was fouled, completing the three-point play. Greene then closed the uprising the way she started it with a bucket inside, off an assist from Lucas, for a 48-41 advantage.
Ohio State never got closer than five points again as the Nittany Lions slowly pulled away.
"We just had mental breakdowns. A few turnovers and then they scored five or six points because we're not boxing out (on free throws), we're not paying attention to detail," Hill said. "You don't pay attention to detail, that's how the game starts to slip away from you."
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