COLUMBUS, Ohio – Ohio State senior guard Kelsey Mitchell is in college basketball’s rarified air this winter.
The 2014 Princeton High School graduate is third on the NCAA women’s basketball career points list. She also holds multiple other NCAA, Big Ten and Ohio State records. The categories are enough to fill every line of a media bio page.
But you won’t find the 5-foot-8 guard rattling off any of her statistical achievements. In fact, her favorite memory is simply when she helped Ohio State to the Big Ten title game three years ago as a freshman just as she emerged onto the national spotlight.
“I just try to stay in the day and stay in the moment,” Mitchell said last week.
Mitchell’s smile and youthful exuberance for the game is ever apparent. Her passion for the game hasn’t dimmed since being named Ohio's Ms. Basketball as a Princeton senior in 2014.
There is no telling the amount of hours the three-time collegiate All-American has put in the gym over the past four years. On Monday, she was voted as the Big Ten Player of the Year by the coaches.
“The biggest thing I always say about Kelsey is these things haven’t happened by accident,” Ohio State coach Kevin McGuff said. “She is the hardest worker I’ve ever been around. She is absolutely relentless about improving her game.”
Quite simply, the 22-year-old Mitchell just prefers others to describe her legacy in Columbus as the Big Ten’s all-time leading scorer (male or female).
Oscar Robertson says Mitchell’s career is probably underappreciated. University of Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma once said there was no shot Mitchell couldn’t make.
Instead of the personal accolades, Mitchell has maintained her first priority throughout her high school and collegiate career – that of the team itself. Ohio State won the Big Ten outright this past Sunday for the first time since 2010.
"She has made Ohio State a power up there,” Robertson told WCPO last week.
As Ohio State (24-6, 13-3 Big Ten) prepares to be the No. 1 seed in the Big Ten Tournament Friday in Indianapolis (noon game versus an opponent to be determined), it marks another step toward Mitchell’s ultimate goal this season of playing in the Final Four March 30-April 1 at nearby Nationwide Arena in Columbus.
The postseason also marks some of the final games Greater Cincinnati will see one of its most decorated athletes in any sport compete as an amateur.
“There is no doubt she is truly a talented and gifted basketball player who set records that may never be broken here, but she also played with a flare that all fans will always remember and talk about,” Ohio State Athletic Director Gene Smith told WCPO. “Just a special person and player.”
‘Thrown to the wolves’
When Mark Mitchell, Kelsey’s father, installed a light above the outdoor basketball hoop at the family home some 18 years ago, he wasn’t surprised his twin sons, Kevin and Cameron, were practicing at 2 a.m.
But, Mark, now an Ohio State Assistant Coach, soon discovered a character trait about 4-year-old Kelsey.
Kelsey accidentally rammed her chest into the deck and ran inside for support from her parents, Mark and Cheryl.
Mark explained to her the occasional perils of playing sports and asked whether she wanted to go back outside. Kelsey quickly decided she wouldn’t stop playing. It was just the way she was wired.
Years later, Kevin and Cameron would be credited with giving her the competitive edge she often exhibits on the court. There is little stopping Kelsey in the up-tempo game.
“Through some of the injuries, knockdowns and pitfalls – it’s pick yourself back up and go back out there and swing at it again,” Mark Mitchell said. “She got thrown to the wolves pretty early.”
Later, Mark took Kelsey to a men’s midnight league in Winton Terrace where 10-year-old Kelsey impressed the other players. The fact was Kelsey could ball regardless of the competition.
During the fifth and sixth grade Kelsey played against boys on Amateur Athletic Union teams. She did anything to improve her game.
Later, she watched the successful Princeton teams that included Jordan Sibert and Orlando Williams and a 2009 Division I state runner-up finish.
“That shaped who I was in regards to what I wanted to do with the game of basketball,” Kelsey said.
When Mark became the Taft head coach, Kelsey not only followed her brothers on the team but she played in pickup games against the Taft freshman and junior varsity teams. In one particular scrimmage at Sycamore, the eighth-grader received playing time on the varsity.
"I wanted her to transfer in," Mark said.
All of those experiences helped prepare Kelsey for a memorable Princeton career. Her family was by her side every step of the way including the night she scored a Nutter Center-record 50 points in the regional semifinal her senior season.
A week later, Kelsey, a McDonald’s All-American, helped to lead Princeton to the Division I state title; her selfless nature was evident throughout.
“Kelsey is a great role model,” Princeton Athletic Director Gary Croley said. “More importantly, she is a great person.”
That was on display during Senior Day at the Schottenstein Center Feb. 18. A large group of Princeton basketball players, coaches and alumni watched as Kelsey was recognized at mid-court with her family.
It was a time to catch up and also reflect on the journey. Unsurprisingly, the national spotlight hasn’t changed Kelsey.
“I was totally impressed by how humble she is,” Princeton coach Jill Phillips said. “She is still the same Kelsey – just more mature and seems to be living in the moment. She takes time for everyone who is there to see her. I definitely think she is ready for her next adventure.”
Netflix and chill
Since the summer of 2017, Mitchell has been in non-stop demand. She won a gold medal in Japan as a member of the USA Basketball Under-23 team in August after being in Colorado Springs for the training camp.
After returning to Columbus, Mitchell took a few days off. But, she couldn’t stay out of the gym.
Despite speculation as to where she will selected in April’s WNBA Draft (No. 2 to Indiana is a good possibility), Mitchell has remained in the moment.
The questions about her future inevitably arise but there will be a natural transition to professional basketball when the time is right this spring.
“Her WNBA career is going to be brilliant because I think she is going to be able to do other things,” Antonelli said. “She is not going to get that many shots. But, she has a skill set. Her ability to distribute, play up-tempo and make decisions are going to be enhanced even more because of the rules in the WNBA are different from college.”
Mitchell’s play speaks for itself on the court. Despite receiving the best defender and being the focal point of opponents’ scouting reports, Mitchell has thrived.
“I think she is an incredible ambassador,” Antonelli said. “I think she has embraced that role as an incredible scorer. I think at times she has tried to be a really good distributor to work on the chemistry of that team. I think it’s clear that when they need a basket that’s who they need to go to.”
Mitchell has made a 3-pointer in 87 consecutive games – extending her NCAA record streak. She is also the NCAA’s all-time women's basketball career leader in 3-pointers. She became the fastest player in NCAA history (since 1981) to record 2,000 career points.
“I think she has brought a lot of attention to our game because she is such a prolific high-level scorer,” Antonelli said.
Mitchell is also taking in life lessons from Mark and Cheryl while on campus. She is curious about the ins and outs of driving a 2001 Chevrolet Cavalier and the duties of being a credit-card holder. She is frugal with her approach.
Mitchell has also called her dad at 11 p.m. to ask how to cook a particular steak. Mark smiles at the thought of how his role as dad has changed since Kelsey's freshman year. It's been fun to watch Kelsey grow, he says.
Kelsey also likes dabbling in Netflix (think Criminal Minds, Hawaii Five-O and Greenleaf) after a shoot-around and pregame meal.
“I just try to be as chill as possible,” Mitchell said.
In May, Mitchell will graduate with a degree in Sport Industry. She is content knowing that her college degree was earned in four years. She briefly considered leaving Ohio State after her junior year but knew returning for her senior year was too important for her and her family.
Those around Mitchell know her as a gold standard on the OSU campus.
“I will remember the soft spoken, curious, nice, respectful and generous person that she is,” Smith said. “My periodic conversations with her have always left me with the impression of a young lady who has it all together. We shared a trip to Indianapolis one time, and she peppered me with questions about things and I just loved the inquisitive nature of her personality, wanting to learn, understand, grow and get better at all things she was involved in.”