Ohio State redshirt senior guard Linnae Harper was scrolling her Instagram feed during the summer and noticed redshirt senior forward Stephanie Mavunga had posted a picture of herself.
But Harper barely even recognized her best friend on the team.
“Linnae texted me and was like, ‘Bruh, why do you look so skinny on Instagram?’” Mavunga said Wednesday, “I’m like, ‘I mean, I did lose a few pounds.’ She’s like, ‘Yo, it looks like there’s none of you left.’”
Though Mavunga averaged 11.4 points and 10.8 rebounds per game last season, becoming the third Buckeye player to average a double-double in program history, the 6-foot-3 forward decided she needed to slim down, gain muscle and get in better shape.
Before this summer, Mavunga’s meals consisted of “whatever’s in the house.”
“I would eat pizza, fried chicken, mac and cheese, all that good stuff,” Mavunga said. “So I just eat that stuff and then I’d eat desserts probably every day, or every other day … So I would eat huge, huge meals and then I’d eat late at night, as well. Sweets late at night, all that. It was just terrible.”
Little did she know at the time, her laissez-faire approach to her diet was affecting her on-court performance.
“Even now, I still practice in a hoodie to sweat more and stuff, that way if you feel all that heavy weight,” Mavunga said. “It’s like, ‘Dang, I don’t even know I played like this last year.’”
So after she graduated and began preparation for her final collegiate season, Mavunga put herself on a strict diet.
Out went the red meat, sweets, juice and fried chicken. No longer would she eat three meals with massive portions and snack on foods with empty calories throughout the day.
Mavunga replaced the fatty foods and empty carbohydrates with meticulously prepared meals featuring clean meats, fruits and vegetables, as well as her favorite food, salmon.
On Tuesday, for example, she ate five times. For breakfast, she had a peanut butter and banana sandwich. She specified she only uses natural peanut butter and eats it on wheat grain toast which, with a smirk, she called “the real stuff.”
Then, after practice, she had eggs and turkey. Later that day, she ate a chicken salad before snacking on an apple with peanut butter, one of many dishes she calls her favorite. Mavunga finished the night off with ground chicken, carrots and quinoa.
She also trimmed down the size of her meals in favor of a higher quantity of them throughout the day.
“So now I eat smaller meals, but I eat so many times a day,” Mavunga said. “I just spread it all out so when I get hungry here, then I’ll eat, then I’ll eat, then I’ll eat. And like I drink a lot of water, so that makes me feel more full.”
Mavunga credited her brothers, Julian and Jordache Mavunga, and her sister-in-law, Jeanette Pohlen-Mavunga, for helping her stick to the diet as they all play either professional or college basketball.
“We work out every day together,” Mavunga said. “So like I found myself, I’d eat with them before and after my workouts so then at dinner, it’s like why would I just mess up the meal all of a sudden?”
A self-described cooking enthusiast, Mavunga makes as many meals as she can at her apartment. Since she lives alone, she said she feels like she does not have anyone around to entice her with less healthy foods, which makes sticking to the diet easier.
Mavunga has tried to get some of her teammates into her diet, but has not found much success. Only two players even knew what quinoa was before she told them. Mavunga got Harper to try the stringent, regimented diet, but it didn’t last for more than a week.
“Linnae would just start going crazy like, ‘Brah, I just need some juice,’” Mavunga said, laughing. “She’ll text me like, ‘I just want some fried chicken,’ and it would be so funny.”
The diet will become more difficult to stick to since the team will travel to away games and she will have to eat meals on the road. But Mavunga is determined to stick to it, even if she allows more cheat days.
“She’s gotten in the best shape of her life,” head coach Kevin McGuff said on Friday’s Big Ten coaches teleconference. “She’s really taken her physical stature to another level. I’ve actually never been around a player, in over 20 years coaching, who’s done more in terms of her diet to change her body. She’s really getting up and down the floor and doing a wonderful job right now.”
Mavunga said the day after Saturday’s opening exhibition win against Ashland in which she put up 28 points and 23 rebounds, she felt “so much different” than after games in past seasons. She felt better than usual despite playing the majority of the game as the sole post player surrounded by four guards.
The Buckeyes need Mavunga to cook defenders on the court just as well as she cooks her salmon as the preseason first-team All-Big Ten forward fulfilling her potential will be key to Ohio State reaching its goal — a Final Four in Columbus.