The buzzer sounded in the Schottenstein Center with 3:39 remaining in the first quarter during the Ohio State women’s basketball team’s matchup against Purdue on Jan. 17.
Crouched near halfcourt below the scorer’s table was the substitute preparing to join the action for the Buckeyes.
“Now entering the game for Ohio State, No. 32, Shayla Cooper,” the public address announcer told the crowd on hand for the midseason action.
After checking in, the junior forward would go on to drill a career-high four 3-point field goals, finishing the contest with 16 points in 22 minutes and helping lead the Scarlet and Gray to a 90-70 win over the visiting Boilermakers.
It was a quintessential performance from Cooper, as she has been an essential piece to the Buckeyes’ roster, though she doesn’t even stand on the hardwood at the tip. The 6-foot-2 forward was penciled into the starting five the first nine games of the season, but she was then moved to the bench for strategy.
“Coach (Kevin) McGuff thinks I come off the bench with a lot of energy and that I bring the spark that the team needs,” Cooper said. “As a player you want to start, you want more minutes, but in reality I realized that, for the team, it was best for me to come off the bench.”
Throughout the Buckeyes’ 2015-16 campaign, Cooper has been more than a spark when she enters the game, ranking No. 26 in the Big Ten in scoring with 13.5 points per game and ranking seventh in rebounds, grabbing 8.4 boards per game.
These contributions recently earned Cooper second-team All-Big Ten, an impressive achievement for a bench player.
Against Princeton on Dec. 18 was the first game that McGuff decided to move Cooper out of the starting lineup. The Buckeyes would go on to defeat the Tigers 90-70, and Cooper proved that her play off the pine was still effective, scoring 10 points and having a team-high six rebounds.
“She gave us a real boost off the bench with great energy,” McGuff said after the Princeton game. “She scored some points certainly, had some tough rebounds, and I thought played pretty good defense, too.”
From that point on, Cooper has been the Buckeyes’ sixth woman, always being the first player to check in the game for a substitution.
Starters and bench players have different mentalities when attacking certain situations. Cooper has shown that she can play in both roles, adjusting to the change seamlessly and continuing to showcase her productivity.
“I had to be more focused and more ready,” Cooper said of the transition to being a reserve. “When you’re on the bench, you get to see the game a little bit longer, and you know what you need to do to impact the game when you come in.”
This season marks Cooper’s first full campaign suiting up with the Buckeyes. She had to follow the NCAA transfer regulations when she made the move to Columbus from Georgetown, resulting in her missing the first 12 games of her sophomore season.
“It was quite challenging not being able to play,” Cooper said. “Sitting on the bench and watching your team struggle and knowing you could do something to contribute … that was the hardest part.”
On the flip side, the extra time off gave Cooper the opportunity to improve her game on the court and her game in the classroom. Not being able to travel with the team gave her no choice but to either live in the gym or hit the books.
Cooper, coming from a strong and challenging academic institution like Georgetown, knew from the get-go that academics were important for a Division I student-athlete. Yet it was the community of OSU that attracted her to the campus.
“Everywhere I went, when I was traveling to visit schools, in the airport, I would see at least three to four people with something Ohio State on it,” Cooper said. “It’s a great community … a huge community.”
Cooper donned the scarlet and gray jersey for the first time on Dec. 22, 2014, when the Buckeyes hosted West Virginia in a nonconference matchup. She would finish her debut with 13 points on 6-of-8 shooting, while adding six rebounds, one assist and a steal.
The Buckeyes finished the 2014-15 season in the second round of the NCAA tournament, falling to North Carolina in the final minutes. Cooper would end the year averaging 10.7 points and 7.6 rebounds per game, setting herself up nicely for her junior season.
Fast forward back to present time with only mere days until OSU’s first game of the conference tournament, and Cooper said she cares about one thing, and one thing only: winning.
“We want rings,” Cooper said. “Right now I think we are in a very good place to win the Big Ten championship … we are going to take it one game at a time.”
Cooper and the Buckeyes are set to begin their quest for a Big Ten championship on Friday when they take on the winner of 10th-seeded Rutgers and seventh-seeded Nebraska. Tip-off is set for 6:30 p.m. at the Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.