Following a two-game road trip, Ohio State women’s basketball is back in Columbus on Thursday. This time, it's the start of two straight home games of varying difficulties. Up first are the Rutgers Scarlet Knights.
It’s the lone time the two teams will meet this season, and Rutgers comes in dealing with key losses on its roster, and following a 34-point defeat to guard Caitlin Clark and the Iowa Hawkeyes.
Thursday is a game that could show what direction the Buckeyes want to go this season, depending on one key decision in the starting lineup.
Like Friday’s game in Evanston, Illinois, Thursday’s game for the Buckeyes is against another team likely sitting in the bottom half of the conference when the regular season ends in March. Rutgers comes to Columbus on a six-game losing streak, sitting with the worst conference and overall record at 6-11 and 0-4, respectively.
What’s made matters worse is the absence of guard Kaylene Smikle. The guard’s recent injury-induced absence creates a unifiable hole for the Scarlet Knights. Smikle, a sophomore, has been at Rutgers since joining the team last season. Part of the Big Ten’s All-Freshman team with Buckeyes’ forward Cotie McMahon, Smikle surpassed the Ohio State star in scoring, leading the Scarlet Knights with 17.9 points per game.
This season is no different. Smikle leads Rutgers with 16.1 points per game but has also missed two games this season — its last two against the Iowa Hawkeyes and Purdue Boilermakers. Smikle’s most recent injury began against the Northwestern Wildcats on Dec. 30. After only five minutes, Smikle left the game and hasn’t returned.
As of publishing, Smikle isn’t listed on the Scarlet Knights’ injury report. That doesn’t mean the guard will play, as coaches have until three hours before tipoff to share availability information. Smikle’s presence is a game changer, but it won’t be a cakewalk if the road to recovery continues.
“Still a really talented team. They’ve got some good kids and they play a little bit of a different style. They throw out several different presses,” said head coach Kevin McGuff. “They play very aggressively in the half-court. I think a big thing for us is just really maintaining our organization and sense of togetherness and execution against them.”
That unity the coach referenced was clear on Friday against the Wildcats. Ohio State recovered from a 19-turnover game against the Michigan Wolverines to a season-low six against Northwestern. The Buckeyes weren’t forcing things on offense, and it turned into fluid play that broke through the Wildcat defense en route to a 90-60 victory. Thursday could be the same kind of result, should the scarlet and gray stay the course.
However, will Coach McGuff stay the course with the starting five? Friday, forward Rebeka Mikulášiková was out due to an illness. She’s returned for Ohio State but during media availability Wednesday, McGuff shared that he didn’t make a decision on who would start.
Forward Eboni Walker made it a harder call. After the Slovakian starter Mikulášiková’s name was in every starting roster until the illness, Walker continued a strong run of form that could put her ahead of others playing the five position.
Against Northwestern, Walker led the team in rebounds and assists, with six apiece. That was on top of 11 points. The graduate senior (more on that later), was integral in breaking down the zone defense employed by her opponents. Walker’s mobility, court awareness, and passing ability opened up space for her teammates against a Wildcats team that wasn’t allowing anything into the paint.
The Wildcats aren’t the first team to use that style of defense and they won’t be the last, with Ohio State’s shooting woes from deep not requiring opponents to fully respect the shot. The Buckeyes are 11th in the 14-team conference in three-point percentage. However, starting Mikulášiková and seeing if she gets into a good scoring form could help for a tough run ahead.
Mikulášiková’s scoring is down slightly this year, from 1.6 points per game to 8.5 points, but her three-point shooting percentage is up. The more she makes, the more defenses have to worry about the long shot. Ohio State goes from facing two of the teams in the bottom half of the conference to the reigning NCAA national runners-up: The Iowa Hawkeyes.
How Thursday’s decision goes could be how the team handles the upcoming slate of stiff conference competition. Last season, McGuff sat Mikulášiková following an ankle sprain that took her out of a game for Walker. That stretch lasted 11 games through the end of the postseason. Does a similar run start against Rutgers?
G- Jacy Sheldon
G- Celeste Taylor
G- Taylor Thierry
F- Cotie McMahon
F- Rebeka Mikulášiková
- Six different Buckeyes scored in double-figures on Friday against Northwestern, the second time all five starters hit the mark in the same game this season. The first was against the IUPUI Jaguars on Nov. 12.
- The sixth player in double-figures was guard Diana Collins. The freshman came into the game for her 13 minutes in the second half, scoring 10 points in a confident display.
- Guard Celeste Taylor has led Ohio State in scoring over the past two games, the only two times she has this season. It shows the improved chemistry of Taylor in the Buckeyes offense, and a newfound aggressiveness in her lone season in the program.
G- Mya Petticord
G- Jillian Huerter
G- Lisa Thompson
F- Destiny Adams
F- Chyna Cornwell
- With Smikle’s availability unknown, guard/forward Destiny Adams is the Rutgers player to watch. Adams transferred from the North Carolina Tar Heels in the offseason and is the second-leading scorer for the Scarlet Knights. In a narrow, one-point loss to the Purdue Boilermakers, Adams scored 23 points.
- A name guaranteed to miss Thursday is graduate senior guard Awa Sibide. The Scarlet Knight started all 32 games last season, averaging 9.3 points, 5.2 rebounds and 3.1 assists. Sibide is out this season due to injury.
- Freshman Lisa Thompson came off the bench to start the season but has started the last 11 games for head coach Coquese Washington, averaging 8.6 points per game and coming off three-straight games scoring at least 10 points.
Ohio State loses this game if it's looking ahead to matchups against the Spartans, Terrapins, and Hawkeyes. That is not going to happen.
Mikulášiková starts the game and hits two threes in the one-sided Buckeyes win. Guard Jacy Sheldon and McMahon lead the scarlet and gray who are able to work through the Scarlet Knights press, showing a more to-form McMahon performance following a quieter offensive stretch since the December matchup against the UCLA Bruins.
Smikle doesn’t start for the Scarlet Knights.
How to Watch
Date: Thursday, January 11, 2024
Time: 6 p.m. ET
Where: Schottenstein Center, Columbus, Ohio
TV: Big Ten Network
Stream: Fox Sports App
LGHL Prediction: 85-58 Ohio State Buckeyes
On Wednesday, Coach McGuff gave updates on two interesting redshirt situations on the roster. The first is surrounding guard Kennedy Cambridge. After transferring from the Kentucky Wildcats, Cambridge was cleared to play but never saw the court for the Buckeyes. That’s because McGuff is saving the guard for next season.
Cambridge gaining a year of on-court eligibility means more time next to her sister, the No. 3 recruit in the nation Jaloni Cambridge. Although the guard hasn’t signed officially with the Buckeyes, her verbal commitment means the two sisters can play at least three seasons together in scarlet and gray.
The other isn’t a current redshirt, but one that could stretch back two seasons. Walker joined the Buckeyes following one season in the ACC with the Syracuse Orange. In that year, Walker appeared in six games, and then her lone season in Upstate New York ended due to injury.
It’s a story to watch since Walker, Mikulášiková and Michigan State transfer Taiyier Parks are all currently graduate seniors. That means the Buckeyes’ paint presence could suffer in future seasons.