Sunday, the Ohio State women’s basketball team is back home for the first time since New Year’s Eve. Like that game, Sunday’s matchup carries excitement and features a tough challenge for the Buckeyes. While it doesn’t include a rivalry like the Scarlet & Gray’s victory over the Michigan Wolverines, the Illinois Fighting Illini travel to Columbus playing the best basketball for their program in over 20 years.
In recent history, the Buckeyes and Fighting Illini hasn’t been the most exciting of games on the women’s basketball calendar. Ohio State enters the game with five-straight wins, and is 27-5 overall against Illinois in games played in Columbus. This year has all the makings of Illinois making it a contest.
That’s because the Illini are an all-new team. In the offseason, Illinois hired former Dayton Flyers coach Shauna Green to the same role with the team from Champaign, Illinois. Since then, Illinois is 9-0 at home, won 11 games before Christmas for the first time in program history and upset guard Caitlin Clark and the then No. 12 Iowa Hawkeyes.
Green has won with only five returning Illinois players from the 2021-22 season. She has Illinois sitting at 14-2 with transfers, former players from Dayton and a couple standouts from the preview Illini roster.
In the returning player department are forward Kendall Bostic and guard Adalia McKenzie.
Bostic’s name isn’t up there with the likes of Indiana’s Mackenzie Holmes or Monika Czinano, but it should be. The former Michigan State underclassman transferred to Illinois last season. Bostic’s debut season ended with the 6-foot-2 forward leading the Big Ten in rebounding, grabbing 11.4 boards per game.
What put her out of the conversation was scoring. Last year, Bostic averaged 7.4 points, starting all 27 games for the Illini. In two games against the Buckeyes during 2021-22, Bostic had 16 rebounds per game, for 32 alone against the Scarlet & Gray, hitting a double-double in each.
This season, Bostic has four double-doubles, with two in a row heading into Sunday. Illinois gets her the ball as her teammates attack the basket. Once the extra defender joins in to stop the layup attempt, Bostic’s teammates know that the forward is waiting in the paint and get her the ball. Not only is her scoring increasing, defensively she’s thriving.
After getting 19 blocks all of last season, Bostic has 29 this year. Creating issues for players trying to get into the paint.
The other returning Illini is Adalia McKenzie. While her teammate, guard Genesis Bryant, is garnering a lot of deserved attention lately, McKenzie’s performances stand out too.
Thursday, against the Northwestern Wildcats, McKenzie scored 14 points, but went strong towards the basket, something Ohio State struggled with at times against the Golden Gophers, and found open teammates.
That’s another thing about the Illini, they move the ball quickly and find open teammates fast. That gives Illinois a lot of chances from beyond the arc, and they hit them better than anyone in the country.
Currently, Illinois leads NCAA Division I women’s basketball hitting 41.9% of their three-point attempts. Scoring those baskets are guards Bryant, Jada Peebles and Dayton transfer Makira Cook.
For more on Bryant, the back-to-back B1G Co-Player of the Week since starting for the Illini in December was highlighted in the latest Land-Grant Holy Land B1G women’s basketball update. Ohio State won’t have any time to rest when the NC State transfer is on the court.
Peebles leads the conference shooting 51.6% from deep, and Bryant and Cook aren’t far behind. The work of those three guards grabs attention, but that attention means Bostic gets open more often than teams would like.
If Ohio State wants to neutralize their shooting once they get into their half court defense, the speed and athleticism of forward Cotie McMahon and guard/forward hybrid Taylor Thierry will be crucial. The two, plus forward Rebeka Mikulášiková, have their hands full, but the Buckeyes’ half court defense has looked better in the last two weeks, especially in their 66-57 win over the Michigan Wolverines.
Should Illinois handle the Buckeyes press well, Ohio State won’t have much time to get back on defense. Illinois moves quickly in transition too, not giving the Buckeyes much rest, although Ohio State is likely the best conditioned team in the conference based on how they defend in the full court.
For all the warranted accolades of the Illini’s offense, their defense can be broken. Although they allow less points than the Buckeyes per game, Thursday against the Wildcats, at home, an 18-point third quarter lead dwindled down to two with 5:18 left in the game. Northwestern did that by attacking the basket. Throwing layup after layup at the Illini, something that wasn’t clicking for them in the first half, even though the Wildcats had their chances.
- Mikulášiková returned to double-digit scoring, putting up 15 points against the Gophers Thursday — all on three-point shots.
- Guard Rikki Harris has 21 assists in four games since becoming the starting point guard. She had 26 in her first 12 games.
- Thierry passed her rebound total from last year (103), reaching 104 rebounds this season after grabbing 12 against the Gophers.
- Guard Makira Cook and forward Brynn Shoup-Hill both came to Illinois with Green from the Dayton Flyers.
- Bryant’s 14.6 points per game is the best of her NCAA career after two seasons playing a substitute role with the NC State Wolfpack.
- All five starters hit double-digit points for the Illini in their 85-79 win over Northwestern.
This game, like the Michigan game, seems evenly matched and anything could happen. Ohio State’s strength is their experience, and it’ll show again on Sunday. Even if the Buckeyes go down, the expectation is that they fight back and claw their way into the game again.
With a veteran Buckeyes team, with only one new player in their starting lineup compared to last season, they’ll have the advantage in chemistry over the Illini.
Thierry will get her first double-double of her NCAA career, and have a strong offensive performance.
However, it’s going to be tight. Ohio State hasn’t shown they can stop Bostic after the Buckeyes’ two wins last season. The Scarlet & Gray’s shots will fall and allow the press to force turnovers.
It also wouldn’t be a surprise at all if that clawing back falls short and Ohio State loses their first game of the season.
How to Watch
Date: Sunday, Jan. 8, 2023
Time: 1 p.m. ET
Where: Schottenstein Center, Columbus, Ohio
LGHL Prediction: 88-84 Ohio State Buckeyes
Still No Sheldon
Most questions surrounding the Buckeyes women’s basketball team are about point guard Jacy Sheldon. The team’s defensive press leader, grabbing 30 steals in just five games to star the year, hasn’t played since Nov. 30 against the Louisville Cardinals.
Don’t expect her back for Sunday’s game. Sheldon was still in a boot in Minneapolis this week, but one less crutch — so maybe that’s progress? Even so, head coach Kevin McGuff’s made it clear that there’s no timetable on her return, outside of saying she’ll return this season.
Ohio State is playing the long game with this injury. Also, being undefeated and the No. 3 in the country doesn’t take up a lot of real estate in the coach’s brain. With that said, he’s not going to rush Sheldon back and make her lower leg injury worse.