It’s her knee. The left one.

For five years, nearly every action taken by Makayla Waterman as a member of the Ohio State women’s basketball team has been defined by how that joint is doing at the moment.

That has been the case since the day of her first practice with the Buckeyes, in October 2014, when she rose to shoot a layup, felt the knee buckle and crumpled to the floor, the anterior cruciate ligament shredded for the second time.

 

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And it will be the case again on Sunday, when Waterman plays her final game in Value City Arena — assuming that Godforsaken left knee is not acting up and shooting such pain through her leg that she can barely stand the idea of getting out of bed.

“Her body has been telling her no, no, no, but her heart has been telling her to hang on,” her mother, Julie, said this week. “She’s waited five years to walk out on the court as a senior. As this day has gotten closer, we’re all hoping her knee holds up.”

Waterman makes no predictions, but indicated that as long as the bottom part of her leg remains attached to the top, she will slip on whatever support feels right — a stabilizing sleeve or a bulky brace — and take the court.

“When I’m playing I don’t focus on it at all. I don’t really care if my knees hurt,” she said. “Having to deal with the maintenance after practice, after games, that’s the hardest thing right now.”

This is not the journey Waterman imagined when she signed to come to Ohio State in coach Kevin McGuff’s first recruiting class.

She was part of an all-star lineup that included guards Kelsey Mitchell and Asia Doss and center Alexa Hart, all of whom had played with the 6-foot-2 Waterman on a successful AAU program. She also had won a state championship at Kettering Fairmont High School near Dayton.

Waterman’s knee injury ended her freshman season before it even began, and the effects of two ACL surgeries have stunted a full recovery.

“I have almost zero cartilage left in my knee and an unusual amount of arthritis,” she said. “I’ve been trying to maintain it for four years. You just kind of tiptoe and wait for the pain to come.”

Waterman was piece of successful OSU teams the past three seasons — the Buckeyes averaged more than 27 victories each year and won two Big Ten titles — but she was a role player. Entering this season she had averaged 3.3 points and 15.3 minutes in 99 career games.

“I’ve learned a lot about myself. Being hurt, then playing behind seniors year after year after year teaches you a lot of patience,” Waterman said. “I’ve just had to wait for my time and put the work in.”

Sore knees and all, her time arrived in what has been a most unusual senior season.

Having lost its top six scorers from last season, Ohio State is a collection of promising freshmen, four graduate transfers and two returning letter-winners, Waterman and reserve Jensen Caretti.

Not surprisingly, the Buckeyes have been inconsistent, taking a 14-12 record into Sunday’s regular-season finale against Rutgers. But they have won their past four games and 10 of 14 since a 4-8 start.

“I have sort of taken myself away from the past four seasons,” said Waterman, who is averaging 7.9 points and 30.8 minutes this season. “This is a completely different team. When I started focusing on what this team can do, I started enjoying myself.”

McGuff said, “She’s an unbelievable kid. She’s been a great leader this year, really instrumental in helping this team grow.”

Waterman, who has a degree in psychology, said this season as the unofficial team mother will help her prepare for her life’s next chapter, as a basketball coach.

“I know this: She gets the mental aspect of all of it,” her mother said. “She knows what students go through day after day to get ready to compete and to get good grades. She’s been through it all.

“We’re just so proud of her — her strength and her maturity. I know there are going to be a lot of happy tears on Sunday.”

rstein@dispatch.com