OXFORD — Jim Foster didn”t have an elaborate explanation.
Late in the second half Sunday, the veteran Ohio State women”s basketball coach almost looked resigned to that fact that the University of Mississippi was going to upset his No. 9 Buckeyes.
Then something unexpected happened.
A hook shot by Andrea Walker ignited a game-closing 12-0 run that helped Ohio State erase a 10-point deficit and steal a 79-77 victory before a crowd of 2,118 at Tad Smith Coliseum.
Maria Moeller (10 points) and Sarah Schulze (14) hit key 3-pointers in the run, and Walker (six points, seven rebounds) added two free throws with 16.5 seconds remaining to help Ohio State (10-1) take the lead for the final time.
“We talked about certain things all through the game and we started to do them,” Foster said. “You have to get stops, you have to get rebounds, and you have to stay in front of the ball. When we started to do that without having to rotate bigs, you get rebounds. We felt we were getting good shots, so it was all about stopping them.”
Ole Miss (6-3) led 77-67 with 2 minutes, 58 seconds after a layup by senior Bianca Thomas (game-high 25 points). But the Rebels went 0-for-3 from the field, committed two turnovers, and were 0-for-3 from the free-throw line down the stretch as they dropped their second game in a row.
“Teams that are in the top 10 are going to find a way,” Ole Miss coach Renee Ladner said. “We didn”t take care of the offensive end of the floor and fouled. They got to the free-throw line and converted theirs, and we didn”t score a basket because we got out of sync and out of our offense. When we had the opportunity to make a free throw, we didn”t. You make those free throws, you”re going to win anyway.”
Ladner was pleased with her team”s effort, especially coming off a disappointing 75-66 loss at Old Dominion on Dec. 6. Ohio State controlled several key statistical categories like points in the paint (48-30), fast-break points (18-4), and bench points (20-9), but Ole Miss still had a chance to earn a signature victory. Katorra Lewis (nine points, eight rebounds) missed two free throws with 1:29 to play, and junior guard Kayla Melson missed the front end of a one-and-one with 1:10 left.
Trailing 78-77, Melson (16 points, nine assists) pushed the ball and drove the right wing, but Walker, a 6-foot-5 center, was there to affect the shot by the 5-8 Melson. Prahalis came up with the rebound and dribbled away seven seconds that the Rebels could have used at the end of the game.
“I make layups. That is what I am known for,” Melson said. “I just missed the shot. It wasn”t rushed. I do it all of the time and I make them. I just happened to miss it.”
Ole Miss played the final 4:13 without senior Shantell Black (16 points, five rebounds), who fouled out, leaving the Rebels with one primary ballhandler — Melson — on the floor.
Thomas tried to pick up the slack, but she battled through cramps at the start of the half and never found the rhythm like she did in the first half when she scored 18 or her 25 points.
“I think I took myself out of the game a lot, so it was kind of hard to get back into the groove,” Thomas said. “We”re a good team. Ohio State is a great team. They”re ranked. Good teams finish. We”re trying to be great like Ohio State. Once we get the mind-set that we can finish games and that we can compete with anybody in the nation, we can be great also.”
Sophomore guard Samantha Prahalis scored 17 points to lead five players in double figures. Preseason All-American Jantel Lavender (15 points, 10 rebounds) was one of those players, but she sat out the final 4:37 in favor of Walker in part because she committed 10 turnovers.
Walker”s hook started the run and her offensive rebound of a missed 3-pointer by Tayler Hill helped put her on the free-throw line to give Ohio State the lead. She calmly made both.
Prahalis then hit 1 of 2 free throws with 4.7 seconds to go to account for the final margin. Elizabeth Robertson”s 3-pointer at the buzzer was short.
“They were hungrier than we were in the beginning,” Prahalis said. “They were playing extremely hard.”
Foster agreed and said Ole Miss was “outworking” his team early in the game.
That comment was little consolation to Ladner, whose team dropped a close game that would have looked nice on its resume. The loss was similar to the Rebels” 60-59 loss at Tennessee last season when it had a five-point lead in the final 1:16, only to watch as the Lady Volunteers scored the final six points to steal a victory.
“(Coach Foster) walked by and he said, ”We just got lucky,” ” Ladner said. “Well, I heard that from Pat Summitt last year at Tennessee. You have to make your breaks. If we had managed at 2:58 we would be a victor and you would be saying, ”How did you upset them?” “
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.