Jantel Lavender's always been head and shoulders above her competition.
Ever since she started playing basketball at age 12, she's graced the court with her size, speed and remarkable talent.
Coming out of Cleveland Central Catholic High School, Lavender was one of the nation's most sought-after recruits in 2007, and she's continued to excel since landing at Ohio State.
The junior has already helped lead the Buckeyes to two Big Ten championships and two NCAA tournament appearances. The 6-foot-4 center was named the Big Ten Player of the Year the last two seasons and is on pace to win that honor for the third-consecutive year.
As for her Buckeyes, they're holding a three-game lead in the conference, and with a 22-3 record overall, they're poised to make another postseason run.
When Lavender and the No. 8 Buckeyes travel to the Bryce Jordan Center for Sunday's game, which tips off at 1 p.m., all eyes will be on the player who's become the face of the Big Ten and the woman who's one of the country's most decorated female athletes.
But what sets Lavender apart from her opponents is her athleticism. Opposing teams try to slow her down, but she has too many physical tools to be kept under wraps.
"She's gonna get you 20 [points] and 10 [rebounds] every night and it's just impressive," Michigan State coach Suzy Merchant said of game planning against Lavender.
"I'm not sure there's anything you can do to slow her down because she can score a lot of different ways. She's great in transition, she can certainly score on the block, she's good off the pick and roll, she has a high post shot, she makes her free throws, she's an offensive rebounder. She finds ways to score, a lot of different ways ... and I think that's what makes her pretty special."
It's rare to find a player with a 6-foot-4 frame who can run the floor as gracefully as a point guard, but for Lavender, her speed is just one of her many physical attributes that help her rank among the nation's elite players.
She has all the necessary tools to continue her already storied collegiate career, and Penn State will have its hands full with trying to slow her down.
Too stable to be stopped
Jantel Lavender's never acted alone.
From the day she was born -- 46 minutes after her twin sister, Jazmine -- Jantel's been surrounded with loved ones every step of the way.
The two sisters grew up playing basketball and volleyball together, and with every move and every transfer of school, the two have been inseparable.
Growing up in Euclid, Ohio, Jantel and Jazmine went through three different elementary schools and two different middle schools until finally settling in at Cleveland Central Catholic. Once the twins found a stable high school -- one that placed just as much emphasis on academics as it did on athletics, just what Jantel said her mom, Robin, wanted for them -- the Lavenders weren't going anywhere.
Even when Cleveland Central Catholic's basketball coach left to go elsewhere before Jantel's senior season began, she and her sister decided to finish what they started and helped lead their high school team to a state championship.
But even as Texas, Tennessee, North Carolina, Maryland and Ohio State recruited Jantel for her basketball abilities, she wasn't going anywhere alone.
"Most schools were pretty interested in her because she was smart, and they knew that I wanted her to be with me," Jantel said of her twin sister.
Ultimately the Buckeyes gave the family the best option by offering Jazmine a position as the women's basketball manager.
"Just the fact that she's here, she can give her insight on games and what's going on and how she thinks I'm playing," Jantel said. "It just really means a lot to me and I value her being here every single day."
Mind of a warrior
When Suzy Merchant coached Jantel during USA Basketball's Women's World University Games over the summer, it didn't take long for Lavender's mental toughness to shine through.
"She's so mentally tough and just so physically strong and determined," Merchant said. "I think that's the thing about her game that impressed me the most when I had the opportunity to work with her this summer. Just as physically skilled as she is, I think mentally she's just a warrior."
Lavender admitted she didn't always play this way, saying the style of her game has completely changed since high school. She said now she likes to wait and see how things develop, where before she tended to rush.
Even with the pressure that's put on her every night to lead her team to victory, the Buckeyes' star player tries not to let her mind escape the task at hand, which is to just play basketball.
"You gonna have good critics when you play well. You gonna have bad critics when you play basketball," Lavender said. "I say just not even try to focus on that. It's just like I don't even dwell on critics, on media, on anything like that. It's like they just go with what's going on that day. So it's always just focused on playing hard and not focusing on the pressures. ... It's just go out there and do what you do."
Eliminating any weaknesses
Lavender said she thinks she's a great mid-range shooter -- but don't think she isn't willing to listen to advice.
While she's made a name for herself by being dominant in the post, she described herself as a "sponge." Never being complacent is always the focus of last season's Big Ten statistical triple-crown winner. (Lavender led the conference last season with 20 points per game, 9.9 rebounds per game and a .549 shooting percentage.)
"I think the fact that I'm always willing to learn and always open to new ideas, whether it be from a fan or from a coach, of course I can't listen to everything, but I always take everything into consideration," Lavender said. "I always think about it and make an effort to fix it and get better. And that's what I think separates players from mediocrity and being great."
But there's very little polishing that needs to be done in order to take her game to the next level. She leads the conference in scoring, averaging 21 points per game, ranks third in the Big Ten with 10.5 rebounds per game and ranks seventh with 1.4 blocks per game.
Her presence alone is enough to make the conference's top defenses crumble as she can beat players down low, use her jumper and get her teammates involved.
"Jantel has a nice combination of size, strength and skill," Rebecca Lobo, ESPN women's basketball analyst and former NCAA Woman of the Year, wrote in an e-mail. "She has good footwork, good hands and can finish pretty well around the basket. Combine that with her strength, and you've got a special basketball player."
The one thing Lavender hasn't attempted at Ohio State is a dunk. At 6-foot-4, she said she can grab the rim off her vertical leap, but she's hesitant to try throwing it down. Taking the chance and risking an injury isn't worth putting her team's success in jeopardy, she said.
But for the player who idolizes LeBron James' high-flying acrobatics, she's adding the dunk to her list of things to accomplish next year.
"I will work hard on that this summer because I do think it's exciting," Lavender said. "But I don't know because there's constantly people around me, and I don't really know when we can handle another woman dunking in the game. ... If it's a break away and I'm completely by myself, I'll try it."
With each game the Buckeyes win, the target on Lavender's back grows bigger and bigger. Or at least that's what Ohio State coach Jim Foster likes to think.
"I've coached a number of pros and All-Americans in USA Basketball, and I think from a physical standpoint, Jantel's as talented as any of them," Foster said. "From a skill set, she has a chance to have a terrific career and a long-term career, making a living playing basketball. For someone her size and strength, she has a terrific touch and the right demeanor to have a long and successful career."
The way the junior carries herself isn't nearly as flashy as her play on the court. She said she knows when to take time off and relax, and when she's getting stressed, she reminds herself to "sit back, relax, unwind and just breathe."
While the schedule can get pretty hectic with classes, practice and extra workouts, Lavender only needs to look at the tattoo on her wrist, which is the Chinese symbol for "humble," to get back on track.
"I coached in the Big East and Diana Taurasi was pretty dominant over there for a few years," Lady Lions coach Coquese Washington said of Lavender's legacy in the Big Ten. "I've seen conferences where you've had one player who's been pretty spectacular over the course of their career, and Jantel's certainly having one of those kinds of careers at Ohio State."
The comparison to the former star at Connecticut surprised the accomplished junior.
"Taurasi is a hard worker, so it's an honor to be mentioned in the same sentence," Jantel said. "It's just like the hard work is finally paying off."
Finishing what she started
It took her a while to get comfortable playing in one place, but now the Cleveland native won't trade in the red and white for anything.
Last season's run to the Sweet 16 keeps Lavender motivated to achieve that one team accolade that's eluded her -- a national championship.
"I just think that's the ultimate goal for every single team," Lavender said. "And not a lot of teams actually have a shot at that and they don't have all the pieces necessary. But I just think that at this point if we put our pieces together, and we gel and mesh the right way, we have that chance."
Standing in Ohio State's way is Sunday's trip to Happy Valley, where Penn State can move within two games of the conference leaders.
With Lavender expected to go toe-to-toe on the stat sheet with the Lions' leading scorer, Tyra Grant, it will be the ultimate test between two of Ohio's best women's basketball players.
Grant and Lavender played AAU basketball together during their high school days, but this time around each player knows it's going to be on them to lead their team to victory.
"A lot's changed since our AAU days," Grant said of her former teammate. "You have to play her straight up. She's a great player. She has a great off-the-block shot, she has some good post moves and things like that."
While both Grant and Lavender hope to one day take their skills to the WNBA, that will be the farthest thing from their minds on Sunday.
"We just got to play the game," Washington said of her Penn State team. "It doesn't matter where we play, or when we play. They're gonna have Jantel Lavender ... and it's going to be a tough game."
But Lavender knows her team needs to take care of business on the road so she can inch one step closer toward her ultimate goal.
"I just really want people to remember my work ethic," the junior said of what she wants to achieve this season.
"I want people to say that this was just an era where Ohio State was really just dominant and they just worked hard. ... It was just an era where the Ohio State women's team was like no other."