With three minutes left on the clock in this year's Big Ten women's basketball championship, Ohio State guard Kelsey Mitchell was weighing her options. Her team was five points ahead of Maryland, the reigning champs—a lead, but not an insurmountable one. Dribbling deftly between her legs near half court, she fought to shake Terrapins guard Kaila Charles, who stands at 6'1" to Mitchell's 5'8". She dribbled forward and back, inching toward the three-point line, and then faked right. Successfully crossing up Charles, she stepped back and sunk a three.
The shot helped the Buckeyes pull away for a 79-69 win in a game that had been as close as two points earlier that quarter. It also was Mitchell's 490th career three, the most in NCAA women's basketball history and the second-most overall (Travis Bader made 504). And that's far from the only record the 23-year-old senior has set at Ohio State. She is also the Big Ten's all-time leading scorer, and the No. 3 scorer in women's college basketball with 3,363 points—so far. (Just behind her? None other than WNBA star Brittney Griner.) Heading into the NCAA tournament with the 10th-ranked team in the country, she's had the type of career that players dream of—the type of career that has her projected by some to be the third pick in this year's WNBA draft.
Not that the numbers mean much to her. For Mitchell, the drive to be college basketball's ultimate gym rat doesn't come from the them. It comes from a love of the game that anyone who's been around her will tell you is next-level.
"Not only is she a gym rat, she's always watching basketball: the NBA, men's basketball," her coach, Kevin McGuff, tells Bleacher Report. "She's always talking about it—she just loves the game. Not as many kids these days love it like that, and that's something that really sets her apart."
Mitchell comes by her passion for basketball (and her gym-rat tendencies) honestly. Her father, Mark, was an offensive lineman at Eastern Kentucky University. He coached high school ball in Cincinnati while Kelsey was growing up and is now an assistant coach for the Buckeyes. Mitchell's love of the game was born watching his teams. She still remembers the exact moment.
"My dad's high school team had a tournament in Binghamton, N.Y., and I got chosen to get dunked over by somebody," explains Mitchell, who was six or seven at the time. "Just being like, 'Oh, I got chosen!' as a kid, that, like, makes your life. From then on I was just like, Game on. Let's do this."
Mitchell's older brothers both played, as does her sister Chelsea—another Buckeye, who's taking a semester away from the team to focus on academics. Former NBAers O.J. Mayo and Bill Walker were among the players Mitchell saw play in her dad's games.
"I saw a lot of good basketball," she says now. "I just kind of fell in love with the jerseys—and everything about the atmosphere. It just drew my attention from there."
Kelsey played on an all-boys team until "they said I couldn't play with the guys anymore," in her words. It wasn't without its challenges. "Some of my boy teammates weren't the nicest. … I had to, like, get my hair braided all the way to the back just so I could fit in; it was kind of a crazy thing," she says now. "But I guess it was all worth it." She believes the experience of playing against men throughout her life has shaped her game, albeit somewhat unintentionally. "I didn't have the luxury of being around many girls my age that played basketball," she says.
Even when she wasn't at practice, Kelsey was still practicing. Every day, she and her sister would take the bus to their grandparents house, grab a snack and then head to the nearby Woodlawn Community Center to play pickup "and be there until close," according to Kelsey. This ritual started when she was in elementary school and continued through her junior year of high school. Even in college, she's played pickup on campus in the offseason against athletes from other sports, including quarterback J.T. Barrett.
"Those people play so freely because they don't have a name on their chest—they're not playing for a program, they're not playing for a team," says Kelsey of her pickup adversaries. "That's the best way to play, I feel like. College basketball … I'm not saying it's a business, but let's just call it what it is: When it comes down to it, you have to try to win games and take it more seriously instead of just being fun. But I always try to take that mentality with me and make sure I'm having fun with it. Especially this year."
As Mitchell prepares to graduate, she's leaving behind a team transformed. She was one of McGuff's earliest recruits, and McGuff says she's been a "huge" part of bringing the team its first conference tournament title since 2011. "It's great to have your best player so committed to working on their game and getting better year-round because it just drives other people to keep up with her. She's one of the ones that you have to run out of the gym rather than chase into the gym. I honestly think it kind of freaks her out if she's not in the gym working on her game."
Mitchell doesn't like talking about the unknown parts of her future, but McGuff is certain she'll make an immediate impression in the pros. "With her speed, ball-handling and ability to make others better, I think she's going to be really be impactful on day one with whomever drafts her," he says.
Her skills behind the arc will make her even more of an asset to her new team, as a three-point revolution like the one that's turned the NBA upside-down is also underway in the WNBA. According to a recent New York Times story, three-point attempts have risen 23 percent in the past four seasons, and eight teams attempted at least 16 threes per game this season, up from five teams last season.
Her fanbase already goes beyond Ohio. UConn legend Geno Auriemma told the New York Times, "There's no shot she can't make." Her friend D'Angelo Russell, who she met as a fellow McDonald's All-American, told the Cleveland Plain Dealer she's "unguardable."
"He's big-time. Us college people aren't there yet," Mitchell demurs when Russell is mentioned. Her perspective on her gaudy stats and A-list co-signs is, as it is on all other fronts, pragmatic. "I just don't want to put as much as time as I try to put into it and be mediocre at it. I don't think anybody wants that," she says simply.
"I want to go as hard as possible for the game of basketball because I love it so much."