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Ohio State women’s basketball takes big leap in Brazil

The Buckeyes took 10 days of August to do it all, and even a little basketball.

Ohio State women’s basketball on Twitter | @OhioStateWBB

Until the Ohio State women’s basketball season tips off in Las Vegas, Nevada on Nov. 6, Land-Grant Holy Land has coverage from all angles. Follow along for player previews, schedule release information and stories from the coaches and players themselves — all getting you ready for the start of the season when the Buckeyes take on the USC Trojans in Sin City.

A summer trip for the Ohio State women’s basketball team included a secret. A secret known by a select few. The coaching staff, school administrators, a post office worker and a transfer sophomore.

“I knew before all of them actually,” said sophomore Kentucky transfer guard Kennedy Cambridge about knowing the location of Ohio State’s summer trip: Brazil. “I found out on my team visit in May.”

“Oh, must be nice!” responded senior guard Rikki Harris, a leader on and off the court for the Buckeyes.

Harris knew that they were destined to leave Central Ohio this summer to bond as a team overseas. Being part of team leadership meant Harris and fellow tenured Buckeyes had inside knowledge of the team’s plans. At first though, Brazil wasn’t the desired landing spot.

Although still a nice consolation prize, when Harris first learned of the Brazilian destination in July, it was a vastly shorter trip to get mail that caught her off-guard.

“We chose Greece but that didn’t work,” said Harris. “I found out from the post office. He knows JP (assistant coach Jalen Powell) and I guess she goes there too. He was like ‘yeah, you’re supposed to come in and do your passports for Brazil,’ and I was like ‘no, we’re not going to Brazil, we’re going to Greece!’ ‘No, I’m pretty sure she said Brazil.’”

The Buckeyes’ leader let everyone on the team know a trip to South America was imminent. The coaching staff denied it until they didn’t, and on Aug. 5, Ohio State was on its way south.

It was a trip that didn’t include much in terms of basketball. Ohio State practiced only once of the 10 days in South America. That light 45-minute practice was followed by a heavily rotated Buckeyes team facing Sodiê Mesquita, a Brazilian professional side, in a 61-41 Ohio State exhibition victory.

There wasn’t much to the game, seen more as a chance to get players on the same side against real opponents, although sophomore guard Kaia Henderson impressed with 21 points. After all, the Buckeyes brought in three transfers and two freshmen into the squad this offseason.

The journey was an opportunity to acclimate those new players, build relationships and possibly even a reward for an outstanding Elite Eight run in the 2023 NCAA March Madness tournament. On the ground in Brazil though, there weren’t discussions about going for a national championship or about squad rotation during the Big Ten schedule. Instead, the trip featured the players focusing on life outside of basketball.

“Some of us got to go surfing, a lot of hiking, bike rides. A lot of walking, exploring,” said new Buckeyes guard Celeste Taylor. “Learning about a whole nother country and their culture.”

For Taylor especially, after missing part of summer practice with the Buckeyes with a trip to France with Team USA 3x3, the lengthy time with new teammates was invaluable. Even though Taylor is new to the team, the 2022-23 ACC Defensive Player of the Year with Duke isn’t new to being a team leader.

“My favorite part, or the best part about it, was how close and how much I got to learn about my teammates,” said Taylor. “Just from everyone, what they like, what they don’t like, what they’re good at. Everybody is their own person, so going on the trip and learning a lot about them, being there for them when its needed.”

The team took biking trips, visited the famous Christ the Redeemer statue overlooking Rio de Janeiro and even putting together a makeshift graduation ceremony for teammates. Senior Madison Greene and graduate senior Eboni Walker each received a paper “diploma” on the bus in Brazil with teammates and coaches cheering on their accomplishments.

They also tried things like Brazilian Gatorade, which didn’t feel anywhere near the same to the people who have had their fair share in years of playing competitive basketball. There’s also coconut water, a popular drink in the coastal country; A refreshing drink in an area of the country known for producing its own fair share of the fruit.

“It was worth the experience, but I wouldn’t say it was good,” said Cambridge.

However, it wasn’t all electrolyte drinks and supervised team activities. The trip to Brazil allowed players the opportunity to loosen up and take a break from the year-round job of a student-athlete.

“As long as we were safe and kept out of trouble, we could do what we wanted to do,” said Harris. “That part was nice.”

When players were on their own, they could explore the culture and have fun of their own variety. That’s also when relationships can build the most: When players are one-on-one with each other or in groups away from those in charge of the team.

It was time when players could be more open with each other, not under the eyes of the coaching staff. For the new names who are still learning their coaches and what they can and cannot do, it allowed for guards to go down and the real person to show. Those small group trips to the beach or around town go a long way in building a team that was three wins away from the first NCAA tournament win in program history.

Throughout the journey, members of the Buckeyes, led by sophomore star forward Cotie McMahon, shared their own travel vlog of their journey. Including a coach Kevin McGuff fit check, standing at the foot of Christ the Redeemer and a team boat trip, with a challenging twist.

While some players were taking a nap away from the team or catching the sun’s rays on the boat, a select few, including Harris and McGuff made the leap into the water.

“I can swim. I’m not going to say I can’t, because I can but I don’t like to be in the ocean where I can’t touch the ground, because that terrifies me,” said Harris. “From the boat it looked closer, it looked really close. I thought it would be a 2-minute swim but it took 10 minutes to get there. It was far and tiring. It was worth it but I would not do it again.”

It wasn’t only far, but the return swim from the shore back to the boat had an added bonus, making the challengers swim against the current.

The only thing left of the trip now are the videos, pictures and memories. On the surface, its games of silent Marco Polo, beach volleyball and team excursions. Below that are relationship-building moments that won’t only be evident on the court but build friendships that transcend the couple of hours fans and media see the students.

“It was a really good experience to be able to bond with our teammates, especially with how many new kids we have,” said Taylor. “Form that relationship that will last a lifetime.”