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Ohio State star Samantha Prahalis silences opponents

| Sunday, March 21, 2010

Samantha Prahalis walks out from behind the curtain onto the stage and sits down in front of the media at Petersen Events Center, nervously biting on her nails.

The NCAA moderator asks if either she or Ohio State teammate Jantel Lavender can open with a comment on St. Francis (Pa.), their first-round opponent today, and Prahalis' head drops, her gaze fixed on the floor. It's almost as if she's the kid hiding in the back of the classroom, hoping if she avoids eye contact the teacher won't call on her.

That's when you start to wonder: Is this really the flashy player with eight tattoos, the one people call anything from fiery and competitive to cocky and out of control?

"She's completely opposite (off the court) from the way she plays," said Ohio State assistant Debbie Black, who saw Prahalis as a high school sophomore and has become a mentor to the 20-year-old native of Commack, NY. "(Off the court), she's very introverted, almost painfully shy. But it's interesting, what happens with Sammy ... she gets on the court, that's who she is."

Prahalis' court persona will be on display beginning at 12:05 today as the No. 2 seed Buckeyes open their NCAA Tournament run against the No. 15 Red Flash. So will her jaw-dropping no-look passes, her wicked ball-handling skills and the up-tempo style that is uniquely her own.

"I try to make the game exciting," said the 5-foot-7 Prahalis, who has 'Shhh' tattooed on the outside of her right index finger so you can read it when she holds her finger to her lips. "Everyone seems to get like, 'I have to do this, I have to do that.' Like a robot. I'm not like that. I just let it all go. It's your time to be free and just play."

Becoming big time

Prahalis' high school coach, Dennis Conroy, saw that flair in her game even when she was an eighth-grader playing in a college showcase. Conroy was coaching Division II Queen's College in New York at the time.

"She was the youngest kid there, and obviously she was going to be a player," he said. "She could have played Division II then. She had skills."

In high school, Prahalis was a machine, putting in extra hours with a personal trainer after Commack's practice ended. Her father would drive her from Long Island to the city playgrounds, where she would more than hold her own. In seventh grade, she hooked up with the Brooklyn-based AAU team, Exodus.

"She's a little bit of a rebel in the sense that she's a small suburban white kid who played in New York City in some of the toughest venues," Conroy said. "It's not for the timid."

Even then, she had an edge - and a temper.

It didn't take long for her to start hearing it from opposing fans. But that only seemed to make her better.

"When you're one of the best kids on the court and people are calling your name, you either crawl under the ball or you find a way to fight back," Conroy said. "She didn't crawl under the ball."

Prahalis has just about heard it all.

"I play with emotion so it rubs people the wrong way sometimes," she said. "They think I'm cocky. It's just me having fun and loving the game."

About that tattoo

As a freshman, Prahalis shushed the crowd in Minnesota after she sank a 3-pointer. There isn't much she's afraid of, including making sure people know they just got smoked.

Now, the 'Shhh' is a permanent part of her physical and mental make-up.

"It's just my personality," she said of the tattoo, which showed up after the Minnesota incident. "I guess it's for, like, the haters."

On campus, the haters are much less of a concern.

Not only does she run the show, as Black put it, with the winning women's team, but she also dates the star of the men's team, Evan Turner. They both wear No. 21, and it seems all that's missing is a cute Hollywood mash-up name, like Samevan.

"Yeah," she says, grinning, when asked about the relationship. "It hit our school's newspaper, and that's like Star Magazine. I was just like, 'oh, man.' "

Prahalis only got to watch flashes of the men's game sitting in her hotel room on Friday, and Turner and crew will tip off for the second round about the time the women's game is ending today.

But chances are Prahalis won't be thinking of anything today other than beating St. Francis.

The passion, Black said, is what makes Prahalis great but also what sometimes hurts her. Black knows. She dealt with the same thing in her WNBA career and had to learn not to let fire become frustration.

In terms of style, Black sees a lot of Suzie McConnell-Serio in Prahalis, with some Dawn Staley mixed in. But more than anything, she sees simply Prahalis.

"She beats to her own drum," Black said. "But sometimes that's not a bad thing. She keeps it in the fine line of respect the game, respect your opponent but don't fear anything - and back up whatever you're going to do."

Prahalis intends to.

Tournament capsules

No. 2 Ohio State (30-4 overall, 15-4 Big Ten)

Coach: Jim Foster, 33rd season

Player to watch: Junior center Jantel Lavender is the Big Ten Player of the Year for the third straight year and was named most outstanding player of the conference tournament after averaging 27 points and 8.3 rebounds per game.

Strengths: Point guard Samantha Prahalis and Lavender pack a powerful one-two punch. ... Ohio State leads the NCAA in 3-point shooting.

Weaknesses: If the fiery Prahalis gets into foul trouble, opponents can capitalize.

Tidbits: Buckeyes won the Big Ten regular-season title and the conference championship; this is their 19th appearance in the Tournament and eighth straight (20-18); they advanced to the Sweet Sixteen last year.

No. 15 St. Francis (Pa.) (17-14 overall, 11-7 Northeast Conference)

Coach: Susan Robinson Fruchtl, third season

Player to watch: Senior guard Britney Hodges, who was named NEC Tournament MVP, is averaging 17.8 points per game.

Strengths: St. Francis likes to shoot threes: it ranks 16th out of 256 teams nationally in 3-point percentage shooting (37.5 percent) and 33rd in 3-point field goals per game (7.0).

Weaknesses: St. Francis hasn't fared well against schools from bigger conferences, including losses to Marquette and Pitt this year.

Tidbits: This is St. Francis' first NCAA appearance since 2005. They are 0-9 in the Tournament. ... St. Francis and Ohio State have never played but share a common opponent in Bowling Green. Ohio State beat Bowling Green, 91-72, in November, while St. Francis lost to them, 77-72, on Dec. 1.

No. 7 Mississippi State (19-12 overall, 9-7 SEC)

Coach: Sharon Fanning-Otis, 15th season

Player to watch: Senior guard Alexis Rack leads the team and is ranked fourth in the SEC in scoring with 17.1 points per game.

Strengths: Long, lanky players who like to pressure and force turnovers; strong defense that the Bulldogs to create offense.

Weaknesses: The Bulldogs generally need to score 60 points in order to win, going 1-10 this year when scoring fewer than 60.

Tidbits: Mississippi State finished third in the SEC. ... The Bulldogs are 4-5 in the NCAA Tournament.

No. 10 Middle Tennessee State (25-5 overall, 17-1 Sun Belt Conference)

Coach: Rick Insell, fifth year

Player to watch: Alysha Clark leads the nation in scoring, averaging 28.7 points per game, and was the Sun Belt Conference championship's most outstanding player.

Strengths: The Blue Raiders' high-powered offense leads the country with seven games of at least 100 points scored. Clark is difficult to defend one-on-one.

Weaknesses: The Blue Raiders' will have to guard against Mississippi State trying to slow things down. They also have a height disadvantage.

Tidbits: Middle Tennessee won the Sun Belt championship. ... This is its 13th appearance in the NCAA Tournament (5-12). ... It is ranked 24th in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches poll.

Additional Information:

The Prahalis file

Ohio State point guard Samantha Prahalis is only a sophomore but isn't wasting time putting up numbers and getting recognized. She was the Big 10 Freshman of the Year and for the second year in a row is a finalist for the Nancy Lieberman Award, given to the nation's top Division I point guard. Here are some other superlatives:

• Leads the Big 10 and is second nationally with 8.0 assists per game

• Recorded a career-high 14 assists against then-No. 15 California this season

• Set an OSU single-season record with 270 assists; needs 13 more to tie Big 10 record

• Third in Big 10 with 18.2 points per game

• Had eighth double-double of the season on Feb. 25

• Is the second Division I player since 1999-2000 to average at least 16 points and eight assists per game

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