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Rebeka Mikulášiková’s offseason work leads to strong start

Ohio State’s big in the paint comes up bigger in 2022-23

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Joseph Scheller/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

Last season, Ohio State women’s basketball forward Rebeka Mikulášiková was slingshot into a starting role. While a rush of new minutes increased individual stats, and the Buckeyes won a share of the Big Ten regular season title, the Scarlet & Gray struggled in the paint. Now, offseason shifts turned Mikulášiková into a new player and, in turn, the Buckeyes a more formidable team.

Mikulášiková’s in her fourth year, but really the second as a key piece of the Buckeyes’ on-court game plan. The Slovakian made 15 appearances 2020-21 season and none as a starter. Then, key 2021 transfers in forwards Dorka Juhasz and Aliyah Patty moving to UConn and Texas A&M respectively created a Mikulášiková-sized void.

Head coach Kevin McGuff put the forward’s name in the starting five with permanent ink. Mikulášiková started every game of the season, increasing 169 minutes, and reached career highs with 301 points and 159 rebounds.

Even so, the Buckeyes were thin at forward. Mikulášiková and now graduates Braxtin Miller and Tanaya Beacham carried a majority of the load. Teams with powerful inside players like Michigan’s Naz Hillmon and Indiana’s Mackenzie Holmes caused issues for Ohio State, with the Buckeyes losing four games against both conference favorites.

Now two games into the 2022-23 season, things are different. Much different. Mikulášiková’s played two outstanding post players and outperformed both. Against Naismith watch list center Tamari Key of the Tennessee Volunteers, Mikulášiková had 17 points and nine rebounds, while Key had eight points and three rebounds. Pressure under the basket from the Buckeyes big forced early foul trouble and Key never recovered.

On Sunday, it was Boston College Eagle center Maria Gakdeng. The 6-foot-6 sophomore, named to the ACC All-Freshman team in 21/22, had a team high 13 points but only five rebounds compared to Mikulášiková’s career high 23 points, along with 10 rebounds for the double-double.

What’s changed for the Buckeyes forward?

“For me, it’s mental a lot,” said Mikulášiková. “I worked a lot on my mental state to be more confident and to just trust myself. I worked on it everyday.”

What comes next might not sound like the best example, but that mental shift showed in Ohio State’s season start, beating the Vols. Mikulášiková missed her first five threes in the first half, something coach McGuff values because of how it stretches out the defense.

Mikulášiková looked rattled into the third quarter. Receiving passes in open positions, from deep, but opting to move the ball around. With 4:33 remaining in the third, Mikulášiková again received a pass on the wing, but instead of moving the ball away and risking missing another three, the forward charged the basket for a layup. Within 30 seconds, Mikulášiková hit her first three of the night and hit another in the fourth before the night was done.

That transferred to Sunday, against the Eagles. The forward took ownership of Ohio State’s offense, scoring 12 of the Buckeyes 22 third quarter points. Mikulášiková led the Scarlet & Gray with 23 points.

Scoring and rebounds are vital in a game where the team with the highest score wins, but there’s another stat that supports Mikulášiková’s offseason growth. It’s in the minutes. Last year, Mikulášiková played at least 30 minutes in one game, a Jan. 12 visit to East Lansing, Michigan, beating the Michigan State Spartans on one of Mikulášiková’s three double-doubles on the year.

So far this season, Mikulášiková’s averaging 35.5 minutes per game. It’s not simply mental confidence.

“I think she gained a lot of confidence in how she ended last year and that carried over into the summer in terms of just working on her game,” said McGuff following Sunday’s win. “More importantly, she’s really worked hard on her conditioning because she logs a lot of tough minutes around the basket. She’s really competing hard on every possession, and I think that’s the biggest thing.”

Conditioning keeps Mikulášiková on the court. Confidence makes life difficult for opposing defenses.

With another year of Mikulášiková playing alongside fellow starters Jacy Sheldon and Taylor Mikesell, the incorporation of new talent and a team that’s on the same page early, it might be the thing Ohio State needs to reach the next level.