Ohio State women's basketball poised to bring back experience from NCAA Tournament run

Joey Kaufman
The Columbus Dispatch

SPOKANE, Wash. — Postseason opportunities have been hard to come by in recent seasons for Ohio State’s women’s basketball team.

The onset of the coronavirus pandemic two years ago led to the cancellation of the NCAA Tournament.

A self-imposed ban stemming from violations committed by a former assistant kept the Buckeyes from reaching the Big Dance last spring.

So even though sixth-seeded Ohio State again fell short in the Sweet 16 with a 66-63 loss to Texas on Friday night, its sixth consecutive loss in a regional semifinal since reaching the national championship game in 1993, coach Kevin McGuff didn’t need to strain to see a silver lining from his team’s run to the second weekend of the tournament.

“I’m disappointed that we didn't take this next step now,” McGuff said, “but I’m hoping that experience at this level will give us a chance to learn and grow and put us in a position to do something like that in the coming years.”

Ohio State's Rebeka Mikulasikova (23) and Rikki Harris celebrate a basket and foul against Texas on Friday.

The run offers a potential springboard for the Buckeyes, who had last appeared in the tournament in 2018.

Much of their core, including their top three scorers in guards Jacy Sheldon and Taylor Mikesell and forward Rebeka Mikulasikova, could return next season.

Sheldon and Mikulasikova are juniors, while Mikesell, a senior who transferred from Oregon, has a remaining season of eligibility given to all players as a result of the pandemic.

The pairing of Sheldon and Mikesell in the backcourt formed a prolific tandem and saw them emerge as All-American candidates. In the Sweet 16 matchup against the second-seeded Longhorns, they helped Ohio State nearly rally from a 10-point deficit pull off the upset.

Texas celebrates after defeating Ohio State on Friday.

Mikesell, who finished with a game-high 19 points, made a 3-pointer with 1:50 left that brought the Buckeyes within a point of Texas.

Earlier in the fourth quarter, Sheldon ignited an 8-0 run with a pair of baskets, including her own shot from beyond the arc, and had a chance to score a go-ahead basket on Ohio State's second-to-last possession. She scored 17 points.

A few hurdles still stand in their way for the program as it heads into the offseason.  

Though she did not participate in senior day festivities with Tanaya Beacham and Braxtin Miller last month, Mikesell remains undecided about a return and said after Friday’s loss that she would take a couple of weeks before making up her mind.

She didn’t mention if she was leaning in any direction, but relished her first season with the Buckeyes.

“I would say this is the best decision that I made, coming here,” Mikesell said.

The proliferation of transferring in women’s college basketball makes continuity among teams rare, and McGuff acknowledged the potential of some reshuffling on the roster, as was the case a year ago when forwards Dorka Juhász and Aaliyah Patty both transferred.

Texas' Audrey Warren and Ohio State's Jacy Sheldon scramble for a loose ball on Friday.

“In 2022 I’m sure there will be some turnover on the roster,” McGuff said. “That usually comes with every spring nowadays, which is fine. I'm happy and confident that we've got a really strong culture in place, and we've got the right kids in the program and more of them coming. So I think the future is very bright for us.”

Finishing with a 25-7 record, Ohio State’s success over the past months could have been seen as a surprise. The Buckeyes lost their starting point guard before the season when Madison Greene injured a knee and underwent surgery. Greene averaged 13.4 points and a team-high 4.3 assists per game while starting 15 games as a sophomore in 2020-21. She, too, is eligible to return to the Buckeyes.

Taylor Mikesell, who finished with a game-high 19 points in Friday's loss to Texas, has not announced whether she is returning to Ohio State next season.

The Buckeyes started strong this season before losing three games in December. They showed resolve, though, bouncing back to claim a Big Ten championship during the regular season and make the tournament as a sixth seed. Their finish atop the conference standings came after being picked to finish fifth in the preseason poll.

The Buckeyes peaked at the right time of the year.

Before nearly upsetting Texas, one of the best defensive teams in the country, one that holds its opponents to an average of less than 60 points per game by forcing turnovers and held the Buckeyes without a 3-pointer until late in the third quarter on Friday, they knocked off third-seeded LSU in Baton Rouge in the round of 32.

“I really am incredibly proud of our kids and our fight,” McGuff said, “and really probably the biggest thing, where we were in November to where we ended. We were a significantly different team and that's a credit to their competitive character, their commitment to getting better and the leader championship we have with our upperclassmen.” 

Joey Kaufman covers Ohio State football for The Columbus Dispatch. Contact him at jkaufman@dispatch.com or on Twitter @joeyrkaufman.