COLUMBUS, Ohio -- It was a big moment for Samantha Prahalis. She didn't waste it.
Making her first appearance in an NCAA game, Ohio State's dynamic freshman point guard scored a career-high 23 points to go with seven assists and lead the Buckeyes past Sacred Heart 77-63 on Saturday in the first round.
"I love it. This is something I've been waiting for my entire life -- to play in the NCAA," said the 5-foot-7 speedster.
Third-seeded Ohio State (28-5) advanced to Monday night's second round against 11th-seeded Mississippi State (23-9), a 71-63 winner over Texas in the day's first game.
Prahalis took care of business outside and in the open court. Jantel Lavender did the rest. The Big Ten's leading scorer, rebounder and player of the year the last two seasons had 19 points, 10 rebounds and four assists.
But Lavender could only talk about Prahalis.
"She was awesome," Lavender said. "She showed how she can get past people. She showed her talent because that's her type of game and she was really effective."
Sacred Heart coach Ed Swanson had seen Prahalis playing since she was a little kid in Commack, N.Y.
"She's a special player, and she played like it today," he said. "She's a tough, tough guard and she's a winner. She's got that swagger. She really caused havoc with our guards."
Ashlee Trebilcock had 13 points and Maria Moeller added a career-high 12 for the Buckeyes, the regular-season and tournament champions of the Big Ten. The win was their ninth in a row.
Coach Jim Foster felt vindicated. He reconstructed his team after first-round losses the last two years and a second-round upset loss as a No. 1 seed three years ago. He has tried to stress running and transition and has recruited players to fill those roles -- players like Prahalis and Lavender.
"In halfcourt basketball, it's very difficult to win in a tournament environment," he said. "You can't control fouls, double- and triple-teams. You've got to be able to get some easy baskets. Pushing the tempo is good."
He added, "Seventy-seven points in an NCAA tournament game. I'd have to look back to see when any of my teams did that."
Freshman Callan Taylor scored a career-high 24 points for Sacred Heart (25-8), champions of the Northeast Conference. Alisha Apo added 14 points.
The Pioneers trailed just 46-44 with 12:50 left, but foul trouble and the Buckeyes' transition game helped Ohio State pull away.
Ohio State, playing before a hometown crowd, hit 21 of- 29 free throws to just three of six for Sacred Heart.
Ohio State led by as many as 14 before taking a 42-30 halftime lead, but the Pioneers wouldn't wilt. Lindsey Gibson's shot capped a 7-0 run to start the second half, and Sacred Heart drew as close as 46-44 on Kaitlin Sowinski's short jumper over Lavender with 12:50 left.
"No, I wasn't worried," Prahalis said. "They're a good team and they're not going to go away. We knew that. We just had to grind it out and keep going."
Foul trouble plagued the Pioneers.
Sowinski, their top inside player and second-leading scorer at 16 points a game, picked up her fourth foul midway through the second half and was limited in stopping the 6-foot-4 Lavender.
Trebilcock gave the Buckeyes some breathing room with a 3-pointer to push the lead to 49-44. Moeller then followed with one of her career-best four 3-pointers, and Ohio State began to pull away.
During one span in the final minutes, Prahalis assisted on three consecutive baskets in less than a minute, all three coming in full flight down the court. The third was a no-look pass to Trebilcock for an easy layup in transtion.
"Once we started reversing the ball, calming down and playing at tempo, our shots started falling," Lavender said.
The loss ended Sacred Heart's 21-game winning streak -- and one of the more amazing stories in the tournament. The Pioneers opened the season 0-5 before going on the second-longest tear in the country, trailing only No. 1 and unbeaten in-state rival Connecticut (33-0) -- which lies just 70 miles away from Sacred Heart's campus in Fairfield.