March 19, 2009

With Big Ten regular-season and tournament titles already under Ohio State's belt, the 10th-ranked Buckeyes have again established their dominance in conference play.

They still have plenty left to prove in the NCAA tournament.

Coming off back-to-back upset losses in the tournament's first round, third-seeded Ohio State will try to avoid a similar fate Saturday afternoon when it opens its 2009 NCAA bid in Columbus against 14th-seeded Sacred Heart, which has won 21 straight.

Led by a dominating season from repeat conference player of the year Jantel Lavender, the Buckeyes (27-5) rolled to their fifth straight Big Ten regular-season crown, and Lavender's late free throw gave them a 67-66 win over Purdue in the league tournament title game March 8.

But Big Ten success hasn't translated into any victories in the NCAA tournament in recent years. As a No. 4 seed in 2007, Ohio State was upset by 13th-seeded Marist 67-63 in the first round, and the Buckeyes lost to 11th-seeded Florida State in their first game as a No. 6 seed last year.

They also lost in the second round as a No. 1 seed in 2006.

"What we should be trying to do is establish some kind of a tradition in the postseason, because I think that's the one dimension that Ohio State, we need that on our resume," said coach Jim Foster, who is 5-6 in the NCAA tournament since arriving at Ohio State.

The Buckeyes' players are intent on proving that this year will be better - especially Lavender, who ranks in the top 10 nationally in scoring (21.1 points per game) and rebounding (10.9).

The sophomore center earned most outstanding player honors during the Big Ten tournament, shooting 64 percent and averaging 22.7 points and 13.7 rebounds.

Senior forward Star Allen and freshman point guard Samantha Prahalis play key supporting roles, with Allen averaging 15.9 points during Ohio State's current eight-game winning streak and Prahalis leading the Big Ten with 5.8 assists per game.

"I think that Ohio State is a different program this year and we'll go into the NCAA tournament as a different team," Lavender said. "The team's outlook on winning is completely different. I think everybody is extremely passionate about winning."

So is Sacred Heart, which went 18-0 in the Northeast Conference and won the league's tournament title by beating St. Francis, Pa., 74-66 on Sunday.

The Pioneers (25-7) started the season with five straight losses, but they haven't lost since a 69-52 defeat at Villanova on Dec. 28. Their 21-game winning streak is tied with Wisconsin-Green Bay for the second-longest in the nation behind only No. 1 Connecticut.

Sacred Heart has dedicated its season to former teammate Lisa Moray, who was killed in a car accident after graduating last summer.

"These kids have been through a tough year," Pioneers coach Ed Swanson said. "They lost one of their best friends. We would trade everything to have Lisa back."

Sophomore guard Alisa Apo leads Sacred Heart with 17.0 points per game, but senior center Kaitlin Sowinski averaged 25.7 points, 11.3 rebounds and 4.3 blocked shots during the conference tournament to earn MVP honors.

Sowinski is likely the key player for the Pioneers as she matches up with Lavender, but she was 1-of-8 from the field and scored two points in Sacred Heart's 84-40 loss at then-No. 7 Ohio State on Dec. 20, 2005. The Buckeyes have won all three games in the series.

The winner of this game faces either sixth-seeded Texas or 11th-seeded Mississippi State in the second round Monday.