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Five Storylines: No. 12 Ohio State women’s basketball visits Illinois Fighting Illini

Illinois is down, but certainly not out. That should put the Buckeyes on the defensive, and more storylines for Thursday.

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Joseph Scheller/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

On Jan. 8, 2023, the Ohio State women’s basketball team sat undefeated, rising up to No. 3 in the national AP poll. That’s when the Illinois Fighting Illini came to Columbus and gave the Buckeyes almost more than they could handle. Thanks to 22 points by then-freshman Cotie McMahon and 31 from former shooting guard Taylor Mikesell, the scarlet and gray erased a 17-point deficit in one quarter.

Now, the Illini are no longer the surprise team of the Big Ten, and welcome Ohio State on the back of an 8-9 record, struggling in head coach Shauna Green’s sophomore season. That and more in five quick storylines to prepare you for Thursday night’s game in Champaign.

Avoiding the Letdown Game

Sunday’s win over the Iowa Hawkeyes was big for Ohio State. 3.9 million people big. That’s the top number of people who tuned into the Buckeyes’ 100-92 win over guard Caitlin Clark and then No. 2 Iowa. That’s the highest viewership for a regular-season women’s college basketball game since 2010.

Tack on playing in front of a program record 18,660 people and the hype and energy from Sunday’s game makes Thursday look like Ohio State is playing on a completely different planet. That gives the matchup against Illinois all the makings of a letdown game.

After fans and pundits rained praise on the scarlet and gray this week, they have to go to Champaign and face a team that, despite the record, is tough to beat. Of the Illini’s nine losses this season, five put Illinois within two possessions at the final buzzer. Also, while Illinois enters Thursday following a road defeat in a tough Xfinity Arena in Maryland, the Illini beat the Rutgers Scarlet Knights and Northwestern Wildcats 28 and 46 respectively before that defeat to the Terrapins. Showing a side growing stronger as the season progresses.

Plus, Illinois has someone the Buckeyes haven’t faired too well against in the last few seasons in forward Kendall Bostic.

Containing Kendall

To put it simply, Bostic shows up when the Buckeyes are her opponent. The 6-foot-2 forward menaces Ohio State inside the paint, averaging 16.6 rebounds in three previous matchups. That’s more than her 15.6 points per game. Last year, Bostic had a career-high 27 points against the smaller Buckeyes interior presence, plus 12 rebounds.

It isn’t only a traditional center-like role for Bostic, but the forward also works from beyond the arc.

So, how can Ohio State start a player who averages a strong double-double each time she’s faced? It’s a game with forward Taiyier Parks written all over it.

While the forward isn’t likely to start, she’ll see minutes against her former Michigan State Spartans teammate. Expect head coach Kevin McGuff to use Parks, and if she’s effective it could be her time to shine. Especially following strong production in a few minutes against the Hawkeyes on Sunday.

Standout Transfer

Playing alongside Bostic, and not making game planning any easier for Coach McGuff, is graduate senior Camille Hobby. Joining Illinois following four seasons with the NC State Wolfpack, Hobby’s come on strong lately for the Fighting Illini.

In the last three games, Hobby averages 16.3 points and 7.3 rebounds per game, complimenting Bostic well. Ohio State has struggled with strong rebounders, and the addition of a second for Coach Green and the Illini means more work to do for the Buckeyes.

The likely matchup for Hobby is forward Taylor Thierry. A strong rebounder in her own right, Thierry will have her work cut out for her playing a tall and agile Hobby on defense and fighting for loose balls off missed shots.

How the Buckeyes play against those Illinois players with dominant paint presence might dictate who comes away with the victory.

Stay Out of Trouble

For the last two games, Ohio State’s gotten into heavy foul trouble. Against the Maryland Terrapins, it was guard Celeste Taylor grabbing two fouls in the first quarter, at a time when the Buckeyes couldn’t afford to lose her defense and rebounding. McGuff kept the graduate senior in the game though, risking a potential fouling out and it paid off.

Against Iowa, the same thing happened and then some. Except this time, Taylor went to the bench alongside Thierry who also picked up whistles against her early in the contest.

With the aforementioned rebounding might of Bostic and Hobby, Ohio State needs all the rebounders it can get. Thierry and Taylor are a strong part of that, but also forward Cotie McMahon. The 33-point-scoring sophomore against Iowa also grabbed 12 rebounds in the win. That same kind of work on the boards is needed against Illinois Thursday.

All three Buckeyes either had four fouls, or Thierry’s five to foul out, against Iowa. Can the fouls be avoided on Thursday? It’ll be difficult against not only the bigs in the paint but guards Makira Cook and Genesis Bryant.

Keeping it Rolling

Following the win Sunday, Coach McGuff surveyed the Buckeyes’ season, saying that the team is slowly reaching its competitive peak. He compared that to last season when Ohio State peaked early in the season and again in the postseason.

The 23-24 campaign didn’t start the way the Buckeyes wanted, losing three and falling against top opponents, but the calendar flip to 2024 shows a team on the rise. Thursday is an opportunity for Ohio State to keep climbing.

What does that look like? Is it increased full-court pressure following three games where half-court defense reigned? Continuing the high-efficiency three-point shooting?

Find out Thursday when the two Big Ten sides tip off at 7 p.m. ET on Peacock.