In a team meeting on Feb. 9 about chemistry, relationships and late-season improvement, Ohio State senior forward Shayla Cooper addressed her teammates and laid out her vision for the team.
“I brought it up to them like, ‘Hey, if we win 12 games in a row, which we’re very capable of — we’re national champions,” Cooper said. “If we win 11, we’re in that game, the national championship game.”
Since the meeting, the Buckeyes are three games closer to the 12-0 goal set by Cooper, having defeated Iowa, Nebraska and, most recently, No. 2 Maryland on Monday, when Cooper was recognized as the lone senior on Senior Night.
Cooper arguably played her best game of her career in the team’s 98-87 win over the Terrapins, putting OSU into a position to win the regular-season Big Ten title with a win over Rutgers on Sunday. She scored 20 points and had five assists, and led the team with nine rebounds.
“It means a lot to be able to provide that for my team to secure the win, for one,” Cooper said. “They kept passing me the ball and hand down, man down — that’s what I’ve heard in the past, so I just let it rip.”
Her performance on Monday was a long time coming for Cooper. And it wasn’t always easy.
She was born in Birmingham, Alabama, living there until she moved to Tampa, Florida, in fifth grade when T-Mobile offered her mom a job in the Sunshine State. She picked up her first offer from a Division I program in eighth grade, when South Florida offered her a scholarship.
After ninth grade, she moved to Georgia and the letters from college teams began flowing in.
Cooper played high school basketball at Norcross High School (Georgia) with now Tennessee redshirt junior guard Diamond DeShields.
Cooper and DeShields were competing for the limelight — an environment Cooper said she thrives in. But through those intense moments in practice, Cooper and DeShields formed an inseparable bond.
DeShields, the Naismith High School Player of the Year in 2013, remembers nearly fighting with Cooper during a practice.
“With her being one of my best friends, it was just kind of like a defining moment in our friendship and it made us closer, because I was able to see that she really wanted to win and she was able to see how much that I really wanted to win,” DeShields said.
Cooper who transferred from Georgetown two games into the 2013-14 season after her coach was fired, brought the same competitive attitude to practices at OSU. Last season, she took pride in matching up with forward Stephanie Mavunga during the summer. Mavunga, who transferred to OSU from North Carolina after the 2014-15 season, was ineligible to play in 2015-16 due to NCAA transfer rules.
Cooper took it upon herself to compete with the incoming 6-foot-3 post player whose only time on the court came during practice.
“That was definitely fun, because I feel like I was the only one who would bring that competitiveness that she loves and I love,” Cooper said. “So we would trash talk to each other, but it was out of both of our competitive spirits.”
Her competitive streak has been known to get her in trouble during games in the past.
“A couple times I had to literally pull (Cooper) by her hair and be like, ‘Stop, you’re going to get a (technical foul), you’re going to get us in trouble,’” DeShields said.
But as Cooper grew older, she matured and kept her emotions in check. DeShields has taken notice.
“Shayla used to have a bit of a temper, which we used to always have to try to keep in check,” she said. “You definitely see that aspect of growth. She’s learned how to check herself when you can see her emotions flaring up.”
Cooper challenged herself this season to communicate better with her teammates. Her tone varies for each player.
“I might be able to get in (junior forward) Alexa (Hart) harder than I might be able to get into (junior guard) Asia (Doss),” Cooper said. “I might be able to go up to Alexa like, ‘Yo, what’re doing? You’re better than that.’ But Asia, I might have to pull to the side like, ‘Yo, I know you can do it,’ like on the softer tone.”
She said she’s proud of her improvement in the area because, as someone who transferred, she understands players who feel like they don’t fit in.
Cooper and redshirt junior guard Kianna Holland transferred to OSU in the same season and clicked instantly.
“We were so close when we first got here, because it was like we didn’t know anybody and everybody is looking at us like, ‘Who are they?’” Cooper said.
She didn’t want any of the three OSU freshmen — forward Tori McCoy, guard Jensen Caretti or guard Kiara Lewis — to feel the way she did.
“Your freshmen are very important because if you don’t make them feel welcome, a lot of freshmen are transfers,” Cooper said.
Mavunga, Holland, redshirt sophomore guard Sierra Calhoun, redshirt junior guard Linnae Harper and Cooper are all transfers who now play for OSU. But Cooper won’t be around after this season to reap the rewards. Cooper has her eyes set on the final games of 2017 and her OSU career.
Cooper is eternally confident in herself and her team. She even espoused her desire for a rematch with No. 1 Connecticut (24-0), a team that beat No. 12 OSU 82-63 on Dec. 19, and currently owns the sport’s longest-ever winning streak at 101 games.
“There are some things that we didn’t capitalize on,” Cooper said. “If we get another shot at them, I feel like we could beat them.”