OSU women seek growth in season of transition

Bill Rabinowitz
Ohio State's Makayla Waterman, right, battles Michigan State's Nia Clouden for a rebound during Monday's game. Waterman says the focus this season is outworking the opponent. [Tyler Schank/Dispatch]

Previous Ohio State women’s basketball teams under coach Kevin McGuff won more often than the current group.

Those teams had stars, led by Kelsey Mitchell, who scored points galore. But there was always a sense that those teams could have achieved even more.

This clearly is a transitional season, with the high-profile departed players replaced by a mix of youth and graduate transfers before a highly touted recruiting class arrives next season.

The Buckeyes are 6-8 overall and 2-3 in the Big Ten heading into Thursday’s conference game at Penn State. They lost five in a row before defeating Indiana and Michigan State in the last week, each of whom was ranked 25th at the time.

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“I knew going in it would be hard, but we have really good kids,” McGuff said. “They play hard and compete and get better and are coachable. It’s been hard in some respects, but it’s also been fun because I like the kids and like their commitment to this team.”

This year’s team has, by necessity, a different formula for success. The Buckeyes must rely on defense, rebounding and toughness.

“We knew from day one we were going to have to work harder than our opponent, which is what we pride ourselves on,” said Makayla Waterman, a fifth-year senior who is one of the few holdovers from last season. “We feel if we can outwork, outrebound and out-tough them, then we can be pretty successful. That’s what we’ve hung our hat on, and it’s starting to come together.”

The Buckeyes are holding opponents to 38.6 percent shooting — 2 percentage points lower than last year — and only 64.1 points per game. No Ohio State player averages more than Hungarian freshman forward Dorka Juhasz’s 11.7 points per game, but all nine players who have scored average at least 3.7.

Ohio State’s two upsets of ranked teams came after freshman guard Janai Crooms, of Cranston, Rhode Island, was inserted into the lineup. She said that she is still adjusting to college ball and acknowledged the bumps in the road on the journey.

“Being the best on the team (in high school) to finding a role on the team is hard,” she said. “I’m still finding my role.”

Such growing pains should pay off in the long run. Ohio State signed four five-star players for next year, headlined by guard Kierstan Bell of Canton McKinley High School.

“This is a learning process for me,” Crooms said, “and I’m just taking in what Ohio State does and their style of play so next year when the freshmen come in, I’m going to be prepared to be a leader and help them.”

That’s more about what this season is about. Wins are nice, but not the ultimate goal.

“This year is about making sure we have the right culture and right commitment to the right things in terms of an identity for the program as far as toughness,” McGuff said. “(We’re) reshaping that a little bit so that when we add a lot of talent next year, they’re walking into something where we can hit the ground running.”

In the meantime, the Buckeyes are enjoying their progress.

“I’ve been on very successful teams here in the past,” Waterman said, “and this year we’re playing hard and have nothing to lose. We go out every day and work harder than the other team. That kind of makes basketball fun.”



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