DAYTON, Ohio — It only took a minute to raise the temperature of the Ohio State-Tennessee game.
Asked an innocuous opening question about the Buckeyes, Lady Vols post player Glory Johnson wasted little time in offering up material suitable for the bulletin board leading up to Saturday’s regional semifinal at the University of Dayton Arena.
“They have a huge post presence, just like ours, but we have more. (We’ll) wear out their posts,” Johnson said Friday. “Try to push it back on them. They can’t run with us. I know for sure they can’t run with us.”
Those words may sting, but it’s not as if Ohio State is backing down.
Ohio State coach Jim Foster might have struck the first blow in the war of words. Earlier this week he was asked what he admired most about Tennessee coach Pat Summitt, whom he butted heads with during his 11 years at Southeastern Conference rival Vanderbilt.
“She’s done a great job of getting great players,” he said evenly. There was no mention of developing them or being a great bench coach for the woman who has an NCAA-record 1,070 wins against just 198 losses, an astounding .844 success rate.
Foster said his relationship with Summitt during his years in the same state and same conference could be summed up in three words: “No love lost.”
He did lighten the mood by joking about Tennessee’s omnipresent color scheme: “I don’t even eat orange M&Ms. They don’t taste as good as the other ones.”
Summitt isn’t jumping into the fray.
“I have a lot of respect for Jim,” she said. “We had some knockdown, drag-out games. He did a great job at Vanderbilt, there’s no doubt about that. He’s going to have his team ready to play tomorrow.”
Whether the top-seeded Lady Vols (33-2) can mute the production of Ohio State (24-9) star center Jantel Lavender, and whether the Buckeyes can run with Tennessee, are the two major subplots of the game. The winner will meet either Notre Dame or Oklahoma on Monday night with a trip to the Final Four hanging in the balance.
Lavender, a 6-foot-4 senior, is the linchpin of Ohio State’s attack. She averages 22.9 points and 10.9 rebounds a game. As she goes, so go the Buckeyes, who have won 11 in a row.
The Lady Vols plan to throw a lot of big players at her, hoping to wear her down.
“The Big Ten really prepared us for that,” she said. “We have big-bodied post players, post players who like to (get physical), post players who are really athletic. Tennessee is kind of that same thing all in one.”
As for the Lady Vols winning a track meet, Buckeyes point guard Samantha Prahalis isn’t so sure.
“We’ve been in a few,” she said. “We like to play fast. We like to play in transition.”
Despite winning their last 24 games — dating to a 65-54 setback at No. 2 Baylor on Dec. 14 — the Lady Vols have not been completely satisfied with their play. The players called a team meeting after the Lady Vols slipped by No. 25 Marquette 79-70 in the second round at their own Thompson-Boling Arena on Monday.
Shooting guard Angie Bjorklund was asked if voices were raised or if it were just a friendly chat.
“I don’t know about a friendly chat,” Bjorklund said, grinning. “It was definitely a serious meeting. You could just sense the maturity of this team. We all have the same goal in mind. We’re all working for the same thing. We just went around and voiced what we thought it will take to win.”
Tennessee has won eight national championships in its glittering history. But the Buckeyes — with only one trip to the Final Four and no titles — seem less than impressed.
“We’re in the Sweet 16 with a chance to get to the Elite Eight,” Prahalis said. “They have a great legacy. But this is 2011.”