Davenport distinguishing herself in paint
Ohio State's Jessica Davenport says she is taking success one game at a time and not overlooking anything.
From her perch high above the court, Davenport has emerged as one of the premiere post players in the country. She is the center of attention on a Buckeye team that is on the short list of favorites to win the national championship.
"I try to take advantage of my size any way I can," said Davenport, who averages 19 points and nine rebounds per game. "I look to utilize a mismatch, whether it's with my height to shoot over a smaller post, or my quickness to go around a physical post."
Trying to stop her is priority No. 1 for opponents, and Davenport has seen perhaps more defensive adjustments than any player in America.
"There aren't many trapping schemes out there that we haven't seen this year," said coach Jim Foster, who has guided the second-ranked Buckeyes to the highest ranking in school history. "Jess has seen guards trapping, forwards trapping, two, three and sometimes four defenders around her at one time."
That holds true not only in games, but in OSU's practices as well.
Assistant coach Tamika Williams won a pair of national championships at Connecticut as an undersized post and understands the toughness required on the low block. Transfer Debbie Merrill is sitting out this year, but practices with the team and pushes Davenport every day in scrimmages and drills.
"Tamika can relate to what I'm going through," said Davenport, who recorded the first triple-double (19 points, 13 rebounds, 12 blocks) in Ohio State history Sunday in a loss to Michigan State. "She's from my generation and she gives me pointers on how to counteract what teams try to do against me."
Foster said Merrill has had a big influence on Davenport's development.
"I gave Debbie the challenge to make life difficult for Jess, and she has accepted it," Foster said. "Last year, Jess could only use her left hand and go over her right shoulder to shoot. From the first day of practice, Merrill sat on the right shoulder and made Jess go the other way.
"The hard work has paid off. Being able to go either way to score makes Jess very difficult to defend."
And it has made Davenport even better than she was during a rookie campaign that garnered Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors.
Davenport says she has matured mentally, both on and off the court, in her sophomore campaign.
"It's hard to double on me because now you have to pick a side, you can't just sit over my right shoulder anymore," she said. "I can go over both shoulders, see the entire floor and make better decisions about when to shoot and when to find an open teammate for a better shot."
Many coaches in America will tell you that the women's game is a guard's game, and that you need good guards to win championships.
History backs that up. When you think of all the great championship teams in the past, most were led by a dominating perimeter or swing players such as Diana Taurasi, Chamique Holdsclaw or Sheryl Swoopes. There have also been teams carried by a forward, like Cheryl Miller, Charlotte Smith or Rebecca Lobo.
"My maturity helped me more than anything," said Riley, who has since gone on to win a WNBA championship and Olympic gold. "You can't just throw it inside anymore and expect to score. I had to read double teams, find open teammates and take what the defense gave me.
"We also had a very good point guard [Niele Ivey] and a 3-point shooter [Alicia Ratay] to balance out the floor."
That is what makes Davenport's quest with Ohio State so intriguing. She has a good supporting cast around her, including exceptional perimeter players. But for the Buckeyes to capture the crown, Davenport will carry a heavy load. It is a weight she is quite capable of lifting.
Witness her recent triple-double against Michigan State. There is also the 35-point and 11-rebound blitz she recently posted on Minnesota in a head-to-head battle with All-American Janel McCarville. That point total set a Value City Arena scoring record.
Adding to Davenport's appeal is the fact she's a local kid. Buckeye fans take their home-grown talent quite seriously. Davenport was born and raised in Columbus, where she picked up the game as a seventh-grader because she was tall, and that's what tall girls did. She appreciates the legend of Buckeye great Katie Smith, who still works out in Columbus.
Now, Davenport is reaching for heights even Smith could not reach. Katie's championship bid was buried beneath Sheryl Swoopes' 47-point barrage in the NCAA final 12 years ago.
Coincidentally, coach Foster also was at the '93 Final Four -- as the head coach at Vanderbilt. His Commodores were led by 6-8 post player Heidi Gillingham. But all the action that weekend revolved around Smith and Swoopes out on the perimeter.
"I haven't seen anybody this year who I would trade Jess for," said Foster, who on occasion has played Davenport all 40 minutes of a game, which is almost unheard of for a post. "We are an inside-outside team and make a commitment to get the ball inside. Too many teams today want to just crank up the 3-pointers."
So forget all this talk about guards and glory beyond the arc. In Columbus, Davenport and the Buckeyes will go about their business in the paint first. That's where the high-percentage shots can be found. That's where the rebounds are fought for, and opponents shots are rejected.
And that's where a national championship might be won this year -- in a place where big girls rule.
Beth Mowins is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage.
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