Kelsey Mitchell always deserved a standing ovation from an Ohio State crowd when her illustrious career came to a close.
The three-time Big Ten Player of the Year entered college a year after the Buckeyes went 17-18 and proceeded to lead them to four straight 24-plus win seasons. The greatest scorer in Ohio State history, Mitchell has made more field goals than anyone in program history and more 3-pointers than anyone in NCAA history. She has earned countless ovations for her dozens of accomplishments.
So it was no surprise when the crowd at St. John Arena rose to its feet Monday night to send off one of the most accomplished players to ever don a scarlet and gray jersey.
However, she wanted anything but the standing ovation St. John Arena gave her with 41 seconds remaining in her team’s game against Central Michigan Monday night. This time, it meant only one thing: Her career was over.
When she was asked what passing former Missouri State guard Jackie Stiles and becoming the second all-time leading scorer in NCAA history with 3,402 career points, with tears in her eyes, Mitchell only had one thought.
“We lost,” she said. “That’s all I can say.”
It wasn’t supposed to end like this.
The Buckeyes got blitzed from the beginning of the second quarter to the end of the game, eventually falling 95-78.
They allowed Central Michigan to bounce back from a six-point first-quarter deficit with a dominant 25-6 second quarter. The Chippewas hit 14-of-27 3-pointers and 25-of-27 free throws during the game. The reverberations of St. John Arena made the several-hundred-person Central Michigan fan section sound like the Chippewas brought the whole university to the stands.
The typically lethal offense that usually buoys the Buckeyes was nowhere to be found. Mitchell began the game 4-for-15 and finished with more shot attempts (29) than points (28). In the third quarter, Ohio State finally started to look like it was putting it together offensively, but was no match for the Chippewas’ 7-for-8 third-quarter 3-point performance.
Try as she might, Mitchell could not pull her team back in the game.
“We knew that they can shoot the ball, but we didn’t know that they wouldn’t miss,” she said. “You got it within 15, 14, then they said no, we’re going back up 21. And then we missed shots, so it didn’t make it any better.”
As Mitchell stood in the corner of the locker room about 50 minutes after subbing out to congratulatory cheers and applause, she began to confront what had happened.
“I’m letting it hit me right now,” she said. “We’ve been through so much. It just hurts you. The way you go out and that sensation I had about two weeks ago. So you think you can not only stay on that high horse, but play with the much confidence and play with that much focus.”
Just two weeks ago in the locker room at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Mitchell was all smiles. The Buckeyes had just knocked off Maryland in the Big Ten title game. Mitchell was leaning back in a chair with big bags of ice on her knees, resting after playing her third game in three days. In her view, just 10 feet away, sat the conference championship trophy, which her team raised at center court just an hour prior.
That is the kind of celebration expected of the second-leading scorer in NCAA history, not one signaling the end of a career after a Round of 32 matchup against a No. 11 seed. Kelsey Plum, Stiles and Brittney Griner, the trio of players who accompany Mitchell in the top-four career scoring ranks, each made the Final Four once.
This season was supposed to be Mitchell’s shot.
With the Final Four being held in Columbus in a couple weeks, the storybook was sitting on the table, just waiting to be written. Mitchell and the Buckeyes had been bounced in the Sweet 16 the past two seasons, but a veteran-laden squad hoped to march through the Spokane Regional and make the program’s second-ever Final Four with a likely matchup against top-ranked Connecticut.
“I think in the back of everybody’s mind, if you’re a part of our program, sees that moment and want to be back here for the Final Four,” Mitchell said. “I don’t think you’re a competitor if you’re not at least thinking about it in the back of your mind.”
Instead of the fairy-tale ending, Mitchell’s career abruptly concluded. She quickly had to come to grips with the end of her career, something she always knew would come, but never wanted.
That meant considering how her 139 games, 4,996 minutes, 1,120 made shots, 497 made 3s, 665 made free throws, 545 assists, 463 rebounds, 214 steals and 3,402 points will be viewed for years to come.
Rather than as one of the all-time greatest scorers, Mitchell said she hopes people think of her as someone who built Ohio State into a prolific program.
“I want to be remembered for making this program for younger kids that want to come here one of the best in the nation,” Mitchell said. “It’s not only South Carolina, it’s not only UConn. Ohio State is a part of that conversation too. I think we’ve showed people that [there’s] value here.”
Just as she had earlier in the night when she refused to consider the accomplishment of becoming the second-leading scorer, Mitchell refused to focus on her individual accolades. Instead, all she said she wants to be remembered for is being a program building block.
That has defined Mitchell. Unfortunately for her, so too has her team’s NCAA tournament struggles. This year was supposed to be different. It wasn’t.
It will take time for Mitchell, who is notoriously hard on herself, to get over the disappointing season-ending loss. But as one of the greatest scorers in college basketball history who helped put Ohio State on the map and helped win two regular-season Big Ten titles and one conference tournament championship, she has much to be proud of.
Every time she attends an Ohio State basketball game again, she will get another standing ovation. But those will not be in response to a historic career coming to a surprising end.
They will simply be celebrating the greatest scorer — and arguably the greatest player — to ever lace up sneakers and take the court in Columbus.