There was an electricity about Tuesday’s Ohio State Buckeyes game even before the clock started to run. In the weeks leading up to the game, Ohio State pushed to get their fans into the Schottenstein Center on Election Day, while Tennessee Volunteers orange stood out throughout the arena. There were pyrotechnics, a loud student section, and a small part of the Best Damn Band in the Land heightening the atmosphere. Once the game began though, it was guard Jacy Sheldon pulling in the collective attention.
The Vols started the game as expected, getting to the hoop. Tennessee featured a starting lineup including transfer student Rickea Jackson who led the SEC in points per game last season, 6-foot-6 center Tamari Key in the paint and local Columbus-area high school star Jordan Horston leading head coach Kellie Harper’s side.
Tennessee struck first, going up four points. Combine that with a tough start for the Scarlet and Gray, missing their initial three shots and earning an early turnover and foul. In response, the Schottenstein Center was reduced to the cavernous multipurpose arena that it is, instead of a sixth player in the stands. In stepped an unforgiving Sheldon.
Why unforgiving? All night Sheldon made the Vols regret any small mistake within her reach.
Down four, Sheldon earned two quick steals turned to assists to Taylor Mikesell and Taylor Thierry. The first, Sheldon anticipating a pass from Jackson beyond the arc, creating a fast break. The second, the guard making even a simple inbound pass difficult for the visitors, quickly finding the outlet to Mikesell. It was the start of a defensive performance that surprised everyone but Sheldon’s teammates.
“I’m used to Jacy being a defensive player,” said Mikesell after the 87-75 victory. “I think we’ve gotten used to playing with each other in our little press and then bringing Madison (Greene) back, it’s good to have three defensive players in the back. We got a lot of stops that helped us on our offense.”
It wasn’t necessarily a surprise that Sheldon was strong defensively. After all, she was named to the B1G All-Defensive Team in 2021-22 on top of her unanimous First Team All-B1G honor. The surprise was how Tennessee couldn’t stop it.
Sheldon met her career high in takeaways Tuesday, in the first half alone. Then in the second she doubled it. The Naismith watch list player’s eight steals came in a variety of ways. Outside of a couple anticipated passes, Sheldon dived to the ground, forced drops and wrestled the ball away from players seven to 12 inches taller.
There was no hesitation. Sheldon was laser-focused on the court, which is nothing new. After making her 1,000th career point last year in another marquee victory, against the Maryland Terrapins, Sheldon appeared annoyed when the announcer shared her accomplishment with the crowd, and pushed attention away following that highlight 21/22 win. On Tuesday, she shifted the focus again.
After a team shooting half of 10% from deep and 39% overall in the first half, Mikesell scored 15 third quarter points and forward Rebeka Mikulášiková’s game-tying three turned the decibel levels up to the ceiling. As every Buckeye began finding their shots, making timely blocks and frustrating the Vols, Sheldon quietly had eight points, four assists and four steals in the second half to maintain the firm foundation she built in the first half.
Tuesday could have been a star player finding a new level to meet an occasion or this season’s Sheldon is different.
“She plays so hard,” said head coach Kevin McGuff. “I don’t think people realize how good of an athlete she is, she’s so quick up the court. She’s got a great first step. She just seemed to make some timely plays on both ends of the floor.”