- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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To get this picture right, imagine a slightly shy version of Jo Polniaczek, Nancy McKeon's New York tough-gal character from "Facts of Life." (That is, the initial pony-tailed, motorcycle-riding, Blair-bashing Jo. Not the later, big-haired, lost-her-edge, headed-to-Lifetime Network Jo.)
Jo is fictional and from the Bronx, while Samantha "Sammy" Prahalis is real and from Long Island but you can pretty much envision the rookie point guard and hear her accent now, right?
OK, next to the 5-foot-7 Sammy is the 6-4 Jantel Lavender, born and raised in Ohio. They're standing in a hallway at the Devaney Center after Ohio State's 69-65 victory Saturday at Nebraska, which moved the No. 17 Buckeyes to 7-2. Their only losses are to fellow ranked teams North Carolina (No. 2) and Auburn (No. 11).
If Columbus, Ohio, seems "slow" to Sammy -- which it does -- one can imagine she'd find Lincoln, Neb., to be somnambulant. Straying even a little ways from the Big Apple wasn't easy, but she felt it was necessary.
"I could have gone somewhere on the East Coast, but I thought I needed to get away and experience something new," Prahalis said of choosing Ohio State. "And I do get homesick sometimes. But overall, it's cool."
Lavender thinks it's cool, too, because now, in her sophomore season, her Buckeyes have the kind of point guard she loves.
"She pushes the ball, and that's the type of post player I am," Lavender said. "I like to run."
Of course, Lavender points out that Prahalis doesn't say "ball." At least not the way that most people say it. She says it that New York-New Jersey way. You know, like boal. Or is it bow-ell? Or
Prahalis: "No! Boal."
Then Lavender smiles knowingly at a fellow middle-of-the-country person -- that would be me -- and asks, "We're saying the exact same thing, right?"
I nod, but Prahalis laughs in mock frustration, "No! Boal!"
Lavender stage-whispers, "Exact same thing."
Whatever you want to call it -- the "boal," the rock, the orange, the pebble -- a big part of Ohio State's success over the next three seasons is expected to come from Prahalis dishing it to Lavender and also putting it in the basket herself. They definitely speak the exact same nonverbal language on court.
Lavender, the Big Ten's player and rookie of the year in 2008, is not experiencing any sophomore slump. She's averaging 22.1 points and 12.0 rebounds, leading the Big Ten in both categories. She's already one of the country's best players.
Meanwhile, Prahalis is the top-scoring rookie in the league (12.1 ppg) and is the overall Big Ten leader in assists (6.2 apg).
"It's been great, like the beginning of our puzzle being completely put together," Lavender said of Prahalis joining the Buckeyes out of Commack (N.Y.) High. "I'm grateful she's here, because we can finally say we have a true point guard. Last year, we didn't have somebody who can create plays like Sammy can."
Ah, yes, last year. When Ohio State won its fourth consecutive Big Ten regular-season title but then lost in the league tournament quarterfinals to Illinois and to Florida State in the NCAA tournament first round. That added to other recent unpleasant postseason experiences for the Buckeyes.
Lavender has been part of only one of those. But coming out of Cleveland Central Catholic High, she's aware of the Ohio State history that preceded her.
"It's mental, because all teams are tired," she said of the Buckeyes' postseason struggles. "We have to fight, no matter if you have aches or pains. It's about coming to fight for your team."
Prahalis is the kind of player you'd want to bring to such a "fight." Sure, at first glance she looks like that scrappy, skinny, little kid you might find expertly scaling a very large tree in your backyard. Then you watch her on court and recognize that she has not just "game," but "New York game."
Meaning she can do some magic acts with the ball (or boal, or ), and dribble in and out of trouble, and find open players without appearing to have ever actually looked at them.
"You run the floor, you're going to get rewarded on this team," coach Jim Foster said.
And even if a little Prahalis flair here and there might sometimes backfire, Foster doesn't do a lot -- if any -- yelling about it.
"Sammy's a very competitive person, so I don't worry about that aspect of it," he said. "She's for the most part a quick study. If you're going to have a freshman point guard and you want to have a successful season, you have to throw her into the fire.
"I think that will make her a better player down the stretch. She will cut her turnovers, and she'll learn. As people study tape and come at you for what they think is a perceived weakness, you've got to turn it into a strength."
The Buckeyes will need more than this budding dynamic duo, of course. They'll need 3-pointers from Ashlee Trebilcock and Brittany Johnson. They'll need points in the paint and rebounding from Star Allen and Andrea Walker. They'll need reserves such as Sarah Schulze to come off the bench and be able to make big plays, such as Schulze did by drawing a charge late against the upset-minded Huskers.
Still the Lavender-Prahalis pairing should be pretty special. It has that Casablanca-like, "Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship" quality to it.
"Our personalities mix OK," Lavender says. "It's not that we have a lot in common but "
"We get along good," Prahalis says.
Lavender: "Yeah, but your style is way different than Ohio. New Yorkers, they're big on fashion tips and stuff."
Lavender: "I mean, I'm a pretty big fashion person, too, but it's just different. I mean, she's got like 80 pairs of shoes in her dorm."
Hmmm gee, no wonder that, when asked why she picked Ohio State, Prahalis said, "It was where I fit best."
Mechelle Voepel is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Ohio State has lacked a true point guard as much as postseason success the past few years. But all that has changed with the play of Samantha Prahalis and her one-two punch with Buckeyes star Jantel Lavender.