When the ball goes in the air at 7 tonight (ESPN2), the the third-seeded Buckeyes will be looking to continue a nine-game winning streak and the momentum from Big Ten championships both in the regular season and postseason tournament. Eleventh-seeded Mississippi State will try to continue a postseason run after a so-so Southeastern Conference campaign.
The Bulldogs went 22-9 overall and their 8-6 conference record was good enough for sixth in the SEC. They were not ranked in the top 25 of either major poll at any point during the season but were receiving votes for most of the season.
Head coach Sharon Fanning's team has no big stars but three players who averaged double figures during the regular season, including both starting guards. Junior Alexis Rack led the way with 14.8 points and 4.3 assists per game while classmate Armelie Lumanu added 10.8 points and 3.7 assists.
In the post, 6-5 junior Chanel Mokango added 10.7 points per game along with 5.7 rebounds and 3.0 blocks.
Senior forward Robin Porter is the team's leading rebounder at 6.2 per game.
The Bulldogs started 11-0 before losing 80-73 at No. 15 Maryland on the final day of November.
Beginning with the loss to the Terrapins, MSU has gone 12-9, including a 71-63 victory over No. 6 seed Texas on Saturday afternoon.
Rack led the Bulldogs in scoring against the Longhorns with 20 points and four assists. She made just 3 of 11 field goals but was 13 for 13 from the free throw line.
Texas also had a tough time with Mokango, the athletic native of the Congo in Africa. She had 15 points and blocked two shots against the Longhorns and made 6 of her 8 field-goal attempts.
Also providing scoring punch were Lumanu and Mary Kathryn Govero, both of whom had 11.
Tysheka Grimes, the other starter, added eight points, and the spread in scoring was the type of thing the Bulldogs prefer.
"When we're successful, which we have been this season, it takes every single one of them," Fanning said. "It takes the bench. It takes all that enthusiasm, the stats, the rebounding column, the free throws, the (shooting) percentage."
The Big Ten player (Lavender) and freshman (Prahalis) of the year combined for 42 points as Ohio State downed No. 14 Sacred Heart in the second game at Nationwide Arena on Saturday by a 77-63 margin.
The Buckeye stars could not pull out the victory alone, however. Head coach Jim Foster's team also got crucial performances off the bench from guards Maria Moeller and Ashlee Trebilcock, who combined to make 5 of 8 three-pointers and score 25 points.
In that game, the Buckeyes were credited with 15 fast-break points, but Fanning believes they never hit top speed.
"I don't think yesterday's game was indicative of how they run the floor, how they play the game, and that's what our players have to realize," she said Sunday.
"I think they're an athletic team up and down the floor. I think they're very quick, and I don't think you can find a point guard (Prahalis) anywhere in the country that can push it and find people any better than the point guard that you have."
With speedsters of her own, Fanning wants the Bulldogs to get out and run as well, meaning the matchup with Ohio State could reach break-neck speed.
"We want to pressure, and I think that's what's gotten us here," Fanning said.
Pressing and running have been key components for Ohio State this season as well, particularly during the current winning streak on which the Buckeyes currently ride, but if the game slows down, Foster said he could envision his team being able to take advantage of old reliable: the halfcourt offense his previous teams were better known for.
"The more patient you are, the better shot you're going to get," he said. "If they're so oriented towards (defensive) help, ball reversal is a good thing."
He thought the Longhorns exhibited that at times but had their efforts hindered by an injury to point guard Carla Cortijo, who played only four minutes.
"When they reversed the ball, they got great shots," Foster said.
But the Ohio State halfcourt offense perhaps could use a shot in the arm, too.
Despite the 14-point win, the Buckeyes did not feel like they played their best game against the Pioneers.
The normally spectacular duo of Lavender and senior power forward Star Allen both struggled to get good looks or make shots in the halfcourt, a departure from recent games in particular.
As Ohio State swept three games in the Big Ten tournament its last time out two weeks ago, Lavender averaged 22.7 points and 13.7 points per game while Allen added 12.0 points and 9.8 boards.
Lavender still got her points against the Pioneers but needed 19 field-goal attempts to do so, and Allen managed just six points, six rebounds and four turnovers. Allen was 2 for 6 from the floor.
"I just think because we've had two weeks off, it was just kind of getting back into the game flow," Lavender said Sunday. "I think it will be better tomorrow. I think that we'll be a lot more cohesive as a unit. I mean, I think yesterday everybody was just getting nerves shaken off."
Ohio State will be looking to advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2005 and the eighth time in 18 trips to the NCAA tournament.
Mississippi State, in the tournament for the fifth time and first since 2003, will look to win a second-round game for the first time in school history.
The winner travels to Berkeley, Calif., for a regional semifinal March 28.