The Ohio State women’s basketball team had its first tough Big Ten home test on Sunday, against the 12-3 Michigan State Spartans. Through a fundamentally sound display of half-court defense, the Buckeyes dispatched Michigan State 70-65. It was a day where the starters all played to their strengths, but one display stood out in a “quality over quantity” type of day. It was through guard Rikki Harris, known as the “bench starter.”
Over the past three seasons of Buckeyes basketball, head coach Kevin McGuff used Rikki Harris almost everywhere. During the 21-22 season, Harris started the year off the bench and eventually became the starting three-guard, shifting between guard and forward responsibilities.
Last season’s run to the Elite Eight for the scarlet and gray featured Harris playing point guard for much of the season; a position Harris hadn’t played since her high school days in Indianapolis, Indiana. This season, with a duo of now-healthy guard Jacy Sheldon and graduate transfer Celeste Taylor, Harris is now exclusively coming into games off the bench.
Sunday, after missing the Buckeyes’ win against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights due to illness, the guard returned for another display that shrunk the gap expected by a starter’s substitution off the court. Especially considering guard/forward Taylor Thierry got into foul trouble early, leaving her on the bench for more of the first half than Ohio State would like.
Within 15 seconds of coming into the game, Harris went to the free-throw line after getting fouled during a three-point attempt in the corner. That started a more than effective day for Harris, scoring two of her eventual 11 points.
“She kind of stepped up for TT (Taylor Thierry) when she was out, and I think that was really impactful because you know we need her out there,” said head coach Kevin McGuff. “So, it’s good to have Ricky step up.”
Those 11 points came in 11 minutes for the “bench starter,” an appropriate nickname given to herself that Harris shared following the Dec. 30 defeat to the Michigan Wolverines, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Although that was a loss, Harris had 10 points, four rebounds, and two steals in 23 minutes, usually in situations that helped turn the momentum in Ohio State’s favor. That ability was on display Sunday.
This play, within a minute of coming into the game, shows the connection Harris has with her teammates, without the need to ramp up her game or catch up to what’s happening on the court.
“I was itching to get back on the court and I was just waiting for my chance,” said Harris.
In the second half especially, Harris hit important shots; shots that put a game with seven lead changes in Ohio State’s favor.
Harris wasn’t only hitting big shots, but was the benefactor of a strong team connection on offense, leading to a highly efficient day. The guard missed only one shot, a free throw. The four attempts Harris took from the run of play all connected and each shot either broke a tiebreaker or put Ohio State within a point of the Spartans.
That defeat to the Wolverines in December showed a side of the Buckeyes that’s disjointed and trying to recover most of the game from self-inflicted mistakes. Now, with arguably the toughest stretch of the conference schedule, which culminates with a trip to Iowa on March 3, Harris will have to keep up her “bench starter” moniker. A role that isn’t strictly offensive.
Ohio State’s defense excelled against the offense-heavy Spartans team who entered Sunday scoring 89.9 points per game. The partnership of guards Moira Joiner and DeeDee Hagemann especially could have caused issues for the Buckeyes.
Instead, the pair who averaged 30.1 points per game entering Sunday scored a combined 15 points, with Hagemann scoring two points on 1-for-11 shooting. The guard group, consisting of Harris, was the catalyst for the performance, but the redshirt senior knows there’s plenty of room to grow.
“Playing together, we just play hard and know that we got each other’s backs,” said Harris about the team’s defensive performance. “Our defense is good and it’s getting better as we progress through the season. But they missed a lot of shots too, so it’s just not on all of us.”
Now, Harris and the Buckeyes have two more chances to improve: Wednesday in a trip to Maryland and Sunday when the Iowa Hawkeyes descend on the Schottenstein Center. While the presence of guard Caitlin Clark for the Hawkeyes doesn’t require much explanation, the trip to Maryland on Wednesday could be tricky for Ohio State, who hasn’t won a game in Maryland since January of 2016.
If Harris continues the run of form she’s had off the bench, that could change.