COLUMBUS, Ohio – Ohio State coach Jim Foster spent 11 years at Vanderbilt battling the women’s basketball juggernaut just 160 or so miles away that is mighty Tennessee.
He gets to renew old acquaintances again on Saturday when his Buckeyes meet the Lady Vols and coach Pat Summitt in a regional semifinal game in Dayton, Ohio.
It doesn’t sound as if he’s missed bumping heads with his old nemesis.
Asked this week what his relationship with Tennessee and its legendary coach was during his tenure at Vandy, he hesitated a full 12 seconds before finally saying, “No love lost.”
When a reporter wondered aloud if he had any of Tennessee’s bright orange clothing in his closet, Foster joked, “I don’t even eat orange M&Ms. They don’t taste as good as the other ones.”
It’s clear that Foster didn’t enjoy being in the shadow of the ubiquitous Lady Vols, who have played to packed houses and captured the nation’s attention while also capturing eight national championships. Three of them – in 1996, 1997 and 1998 – came while Foster was building a solid but often overlooked program in the same state.
Foster, who is 740-286 for a .721 winning percentage in 33 seasons at Saint Joseph’s, Vandy and Ohio State, refused to heap praise on the Lady Vols, although he did concede that Summitt had changed the landscape of the sport.
“She’s done a great job of getting great players,” he said. “Tennessee was sort of first to get serious about women’s basketball in terms of their commitment and what they did. People have had to play catch-up to that commitment.”
Perhaps his Buckeyes (24-9) follow the lead of their coach in not being awed or intimidated by Tennessee.
Jantel Lavender, Ohio State’s star center and a four-time Big Ten player of the year, was recruited by the Lady Vols. She visited the campus but said she didn’t get the feeling of togetherness that she felt when she met the Buckeyes. So the Cleveland native stayed in her home state.
“Tennessee is a good team, but I think it’s more Pat Summitt,” she said. “That’s the name that everybody kind of gets a little iffy about. I mean, she’s had a great legacy there. Those players haven’t been there 16 years or 18 years or all the years she’s been there. They definitely have great players, but I don’t think it’s any different than playing any other good team we’ve played against.”
The Lady Vols (33-2) are the No. 1 seed in the regional, with Ohio State No. 4. The winner of their game advances to a Monday game at the University of Dayton Arena against either second-seeded Notre Dame (28-7) or sixth-seeded Oklahoma (23-11), with a berth in the Final Four in Indianapolis resting on the outcome.
Foster looks at the regional as wide open.
“Only 16 teams are left playing, and they’re all very good,” he said. “Whatever opinion people have of who you’re playing, when I look at this regional there’s four pretty good offensive basketball teams and defense is probably going to determine who wins this regional.”
None of Foster’s eight previous Ohio State teams has gone beyond the regional semifinals. Like everyone else, he sees top-ranked and two-time defending champion Connecticut as the clear front-runner overall in the tournament. UConn is playing in the Philadelphia regional.
Foster listed the Lady Vols along with everyone else behind the Huskies.
“The Connecticut team as constructed right now has won a couple of national championships in a row and is the team to beat – and Tennessee is in the crowd with us,” he said. “They’re one of the other teams.”
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