On Wednesday, the Ohio State women’s basketball team looked like the former No. 2 team in the country against the Minnesota Golden Gophers. Actually, even better than when the Buckeyes were 19-0. Aside from the big performances from the usual big performers, an injury led to more minutes and a potential boost for the Scarlet & Gray through forward Eboni Walker.
All season, Walker’s played the role of an impact substitute, providing added depth inside the paint. Wednesday, Walker’s status was updated to defacto starter when forward Rebeka Mikulášiková went out of the game with 5:53 remaining in the first quarter with what was later confirmed as a high ankle sprain.
Walker responded playing her best game of the season. The Las Vegas, Nevada native produced season highs in minutes (25), points (12), and assists (6). It came against a Minnesota team with impressive post presence in forwards Alanna “Rose” Micheaux and Mallory Heyer.
Micheaux specifically was neutralized by Walker’s ability to block lanes, get back quickly on defense, and anticipate defensive movement. The Minnesota forward had eight points and four rebounds, compared to a team-leading 14.7 points and 8.4 rebounds entering Wednesday.
Of those eight, only four came when Walker was on the floor guarding the Gophers’ big. No big deal to Walker’s teammates.
“I’m not really shocked,” said guard Taylor Mikesell. “We see the effort and the energy every day in practice and it just happened to be her moment tonight and she was ready to step into it and she helped us a lot.”
She might have to help a lot more on Monday when the No. 2 Indiana Hoosiers come to Columbus and Walker’s already shown that it's a spotlight she can handle.
On Jan. 26, when Ohio State traveled to Bloomington, Indiana, the Buckeyes fell in their second of three straight losses, 78-65. In the fourth quarter, when Ohio State needed a boost to try and salvage something following their second-worst quarter of the season with six total points, Walker’s name was called.
The forward played every minute of the fourth quarter and eight of those minutes up against the Hoosiers' dominant forward/center Mackenzie Holmes. Walker held Holmes to four points and outrebounded her 5-to-1, with two offensive rebounds.
Now, there’s an argument to be made that Indiana was in cruise control with a 17-point lead at the time, but assuming Holmes and the Hoosiers will take it easy on the court is a pretty preposterous notion.
There’s no official word on Mikulášiková, with an update likely coming Saturday. She could return, with head coach Kevin McGuff saying the Slovakian was “in a little bit of pain and discomfort.” Either of the two bigs gives Ohio State vastly different looks with each having its own strengths and weaknesses.
For Mikulášiková, she brings three-point shooting ability that, when on, can stretch defenses and create more space for teammates to work. Also, it doesn’t allow defenders to double-team a player like Mikesell and more space for forwards Cotie McMahon and Taylor Thierry to score inside the paint.
Walker can’t match Mikulášiková’s shooting range, but she makes up for it in other ways. Namely, more speed on the defensive end of the court than Mikulášiková. Walker plays with a controlled intensity and covers space quickly, something that could at least slow Holmes down.
“We just did our dub chain in there, we gave it to her,” said McGuff. “Just because we really needed her to step up in Rebeka’s absence and just thought her energy was really good. Post defense, they have a really good post player and she made her work for everything she got.”
Ohio State will need to give Indiana everything they’ve got, and for all four quarters. The Buckeyes were able to outscore the Hoosiers in three of four quarters in Indiana but lacked the intensity and energy in the third. Could Walker be one piece that helps increase that energy for four full quarters?
The good thing is Walker won’t have to do anything alone. It is a team game after all. If Walker starts, it seems unlikely that she plays all 40 minutes. When Walker wasn’t playing the five, a glimpse of future years of Ohio State basketball showed its face with Thierry playing more of a center position.