Cotie McMahon’s Quick Rise to Stardom, Jacy Sheldon’s Return to Health Key to Ohio State’s Success in NCAA Tournament

By Dan Hope on March 18, 2023 at 9:00 pm
Cotie McMahon vs. James Madison

With Jacy Sheldon on the sidelines for most of the regular season, Ohio State women’s basketball needed new stars to emerge in her absence. No one did that in a bigger way than freshman forward Cotie McMahon.

In her first season of college basketball, McMahon emerged alongside returning All-Big Ten guard Taylor Mikesell as a reliable top scorer for the Buckeyes, averaging 14.7 points per game between the regular season and the Big Ten Tournament. She tied Kelsey Mitchell’s Ohio State record by winning Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors six times, was named the Big Ten Freshman of the Year and joined Mikesell on the All-Big Ten first team. This recognition reflected the impact she made on both ends of the floor as the Buckeyes’ second-leading scorer, second-leading rebounder and a player that can defend all five positions on the floor.

Her rapid rise continued in her first-ever NCAA Tournament game on Saturday, in which she scored a game-high 18 points, pulled down five rebounds and made two blocks and a steal to lead Ohio State to an 80-66 victory over James Madison. Her 11 points in the second quarter were crucial to cutting a 16-point James Madison advantage into just a three-point difference at halftime, setting the Buckeyes up to wrest control of the game from the Dukes in the second half.

Playing on the sport’s biggest stage for the first time in her career, McMahon didn’t look like a rookie. Ohio State coach Kevin McGuff attributes that to her development over the past 15 months since she arrived in Columbus as a midyear enrollee in January 2022.

“That’s the thing that's been most impressive to me,” McGuff said after Saturday’s game. “If you look at where she was, and you guys wouldn't have seen her play last year, she came at Christmas, but where she was the first day to where she is today, she’s made a tremendous amount of progress. And it's because she practices really hard, she competes at a high level. She's really coachable.

“You can see she's got God-given talent, but I think a lot of people have that. But most people don't have the motor that she has or the competitive character that she has, and that's why I think we are really just starting to scratch the surface of the player she’s going to be.”

McMahon might only be scratching the surface of the player she could become at Ohio State over the next three years, but she’s already one of the biggest reasons why the Buckeyes are 26-7 this year. McMahon continuing to play the way she has all year – both in terms of her production and the energy she brings to everyone around her – will be crucial to the Buckeyes’ chances of continuing their NCAA Tournament run into the second weekend and beyond.

“She's really good. She plays with a lot of emotion too. So when she's doing well, it spreads throughout our team and gets us going,” Sheldon said Saturday. “When she does well, we're all doing well. So she's a great player. She's fun to play with.”

There were lessons for McMahon to learn playing in her first NCAA Tournament game, as she allowed her emotion to get the best of her when she picked up a technical foul after fouling out late in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s win. That created a coaching moment for McGuff, who pulled McMahon aside for a conversation before she headed to the bench. However, in a game where the officials called 52 fouls — leading to plenty of displeasure from players, coaches and fans alike — McMahon said her reaction stemmed from her strong desire to win.

“Games like this, it's win or go home. Obviously I'm very passionate,” McMahon said. “I do think it wasn’t smart. It won’t happen again. But emotions were high, and I wasn't getting the calls that I thought I deserved, as well as my teammates.”

Now that McMahon has an NCAA Tournament game under her belt, she believes she’ll be even more prepared to be a leader for the Buckeyes in their next game against sixth-seeded North Carolina on Monday.

“I wasn't nervous or anything, but it's obviously a different atmosphere, like this is win or go home for the season,” McMahon said of playing in March Madness for the first time. “So I feel like this definitely, I look at it in a different perspective.”

McMahon’s emergence is a big reason why the Buckeyes earned a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Equally important to the Buckeyes making a run now that they’re in the tournament is Sheldon returning to the form that made her an All-Big Ten player alongside Mikesell a year ago. Against James Madison on Saturday, she showed she is ready to be an on-court leader for the Buckeyes once again.

After playing in just six regular-season games due to a foot injury and coming off the bench in the Big Ten Tournament, Sheldon returned to the starting lineup against JMU and played a team-high 36 minutes, marking the first time since November she’s played more than 25 minutes in a game. 

While it wasn’t her best day shooting from the floor, as she made only four of her 13 field goal attempts, she still scored 17 points as she went 9-of-9 from the free throw line. She also led all players with nine assists (five more than James Madison had as an entire team) and four steals and tied McMahon for Ohio State’s team lead with five rebounds. Perhaps most impactfully of all, Sheldon plays a major role in Ohio State’s vaunted full-court press defense, which led to 21 James Madison turnovers on Saturday.

“She's really special in the press,” McGuff said. “Our press is at a different level when she's out there because of her speed, quickness and intensity that she plays with. Our pace is much better when she's on the floor and when the ball is in her hands.

“And I’d say in general, she's the person on our team that makes everybody better. Everybody gets a little bit better when Jacy’s on the court.”

Sheldon said she’s felt like she could play the way she played on Saturday for a while, but Ohio State was cautious about easing her back into action so that she would be fully healthy for the NCAA Tournament. Now that she is back, she thinks “it all worked out as it was supposed to,” and she believes her performance against James Madison is one she can build off of as the tournament continues.

“I think just being out there playing, it obviously builds confidence, and playing with these guys is a lot of fun,” Sheldon said. “So it's good to be back.”

Ohio State’s absence from the lineup for most of the season may have contributed to the Buckeyes’ slow start on Saturday, as they had to reacclimate to playing around her once again. Once they did, though, her presence played a big part in the Buckeyes outscoring their opponent by 30 points over the game’s final 24 minutes. And they expect her to continue giving them a boost as their tournament run continues.

“It was something we obviously had to adjust to, just because she's been out for so long, and just lineups have been iffy, just with her coming in and out. But I feel like having her back in the starting lineup, I feel like it really made us all comfortable,” McMahon said. “Because she's not only a great player, but she's a great teammate. And so having her on the court to motivate us, it just really helped us.”

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