Ohio guard Laylay Fantroy (2) holds the ball before shooting a foul shot at a game against Ball State at The Convo, Feb. 17, 2024, in Athens.

Ohio guard Laylay Fantroy (2) holds the ball before shooting a foul shot at a game against Ball State at The Convo, Feb. 17, 2024, in Athens.

Published February 22, 2024

First-year Phenoms

Women’s Basketball: Freshmen pave the way to brighter future

By Logan Adams and Charlie Fadel | For The Post

As it sits on the edge of a conference tournament berth, Ohio has seen minor improvements from the team’s last-place finish in the Mid-American Conference last season. Whether they make it past the regular season or not, the fresh-faced Bobcats added many pieces to a roster that has a bright future ahead of it.

The 2023 season has brought about multiple injuries for Ohio players, including star returning guard Jaya McClure sitting out eight games, senior guard Peyton Guice not making her season debut until Dec. 5 against Ohio State, and Emma Barnett and Cassidy Lafler being sidelined for a majority of the season as well.

Despite the negative impact of Ohio’s injuries, it opened the door for freshmen to enter into larger roles this season.

The 2023 recruiting class stands as an outlier among its predecessors, boasting three players with over 20 minutes a game: Monica Williams, Laylay Fantroy and Bailey Tabeling — all of whom continue to take turns in the spotlight just months into their young careers.

While each player makes a similar impact, they all bring something fresh to the table that indicates flashes of future success for the team.

Monica Williams

In recent Bobcat history, a freshman playing over 25 minutes a game is a rare sight. Sophomore Jaya McClure did it last season, totaling 27.1 minutes per game in her freshman campaign, but she only started five games last season.

However, Williams stands as an exception. Not only does she average 25.8 minutes per game through 23 games this season — the second-highest average on the team — but she is just one of two players to start in every game so far this season.

It’s a feat that stems from Williams’ ability on the court and the trust that Ohio Head Coach Bob Boldon has had in her from the beginning. It’s a trust that Williams feels she earned through her dedication leading up to the season.

On the court, it’s been an upward developmental curve for Williams. There were flashes in her first career game against Appalachian State, but Ohio conceded a comeback that led to a 7-point loss. In that game, Williams had a season-high 11 turnovers to go with 9 points.

Williams said her work ethic helped her to adjust to the season’s ups and downs. She emphasized the importance of having a “next-play mentality” and being able to focus on continual improvement.

Ohio University guard Monica Williams (13) races a Dayton player to steal the ball at the Convocation Center in Athens, Ohio, Nov. 16, 2023.

Jack Tatham | For The Post

Ohio University guard Monica Williams (13) races a Dayton player to steal the ball at the Convocation Center in Athens, Ohio, Nov. 16, 2023.

Since the start of MAC play, Williams has improved her stats and efficiency across the board. Before the team’s first conference game against Akron on Jan. 3, Williams had been averaging just 6.7 points per game and 1.7 assists per game, along with 4.2 turnovers per game. However, following that introductory MAC matchup, she’s gone up to 9.8 points per game and 2.5 assists per game while lowering her turnover average to 3.8 per game.

“I feel like I’ve grown more aggressive,” Williams said. “Getting to the basket, making passes and, on defense, (drawing) more charges.”

In recent stretches, Williams is relied on offensively, as the team has been riddled with injuries all year long. Her ability to get to the basket, especially with a nifty spin or a bump with the shoulder, is helping keep the Bobcats revving through the season.

Laylay Fantroy

Fantroy caught the eyes of many in Ohio’s preseason exhibition matchup against Marietta. She scored just 8 points and went 3-of-4 shooting from the field in the matchup. However, she stood out as one of the more unorthodox players on the floor.

Fantroy, standing at 5 feet, 11 inches, possesses an imposing build for a guard. Her size helps her in many facets of her game and allowed her to grab a game-high 11 rebounds in that exhibition matchup. She is also a force defensively, protecting the rim and picking up guards full court after a made basket on the other end. Fantroy ranks fifth in the MAC in steals per game with 2, making her the only freshman in the top five.

Fantroy wears many hats for the Bobcats, and as the team endures its many injuries, she’s had to pull out the whole wardrobe, executing each one to great success.

Boldon said he and the team have tasked Fantroy with a lot, crediting her malleability. Fantroy has played just about every position on the floor for the Bobcats in her young career, and she will certainly fill in more as she continues to grow.

“Whatever my coach needs me to do, whether it’s guarding the ball, rebounding, bringing the ball down or just being a role player,” Fantroy said. “I’m able to accept that role and know how to play my part very well.”

Lately, the role is Fantroy growing as a scorer. Fantroy has started four straight games as the team has started to lean into its freshman trio more and more, and since entering the starting five, Fantroy has averaged 14 points per game on 52% from the field.

This stretch included two career-high scoring performances in three games, starting with a 19-point performance in the team’s first of two matchups against Ball State, followed shortly after by a 24-point explosion against Texas State – the highest scoring performance by a Bobcat this season.

As of late, the highs and lows have turned into mostly highs, and the fluctuating role has acted as a trial by fire for Fantroy, who has been burning hot in response.

“I’m starting to get into the flow of it,” Fantroy said, “I feel like I’m adapting really well.”

Bailey Tabeling

Ohio came into the 2023-24 season looking for sparks. The Bobcats entered this year having lost the MAC’s top scorer, Yaya Felder, and made an effort to replace her scoring prowess with a multitude of new players.

No player has done a better job of replacing that scoring than Bailey Tabeling. The sharpshooting guard from Seymour, Indiana, burst onto the scene quickly, becoming well-known for her 3-point shooting ability.

The sudden impact from a freshman isn’t typical across college basketball, and it wasn’t expected by Tabeling either.

Bailey Tabeling (21) shooting the ball during the Ohio Women's Basketball game against Eastern Michigan at The Convo, Jan. 10, 2024.

Skylar Seavey | For The Post

Bailey Tabeling (21) shooting the ball during the Ohio Women's Basketball game against Eastern Michigan at The Convo, Jan. 10, 2024.

“I did not think I would be playing this much or have this much of an impact,” said Tabeling. “I figured it's going to be one of those instances where you're a freshman and you've got a pretty good group of older, more experienced players playing. Being as helpful as I am took me kind of by surprise a bit.”

Tabeling has been incredibly impactful for Ohio in her first year, averaging 9.4 points per game and shooting 43% from three in her first year.

Beyond her scoring ability, Tabeling adapted her style of play to find ways to impact the game on both sides of the ball, especially in creating turnovers on defense.

“Over my high school career, I was never really the best at defense,” said Tabeling. “Coming into college, defense wins the games for you. We have a great defensive coach, and he's willing to help me get better at it.”

Among the team, Tabeling ranks second in steals with 37, turning most of those steals into fastbreak points the other way.

Tabeling was productive for Ohio the whole year, but her true breakout performance happened on Dec. 9 against Syracuse when Tabeling put up 23 points and shot 7-of-9 from behind the arc. In that game, Tabeling found her identity and the role she fits best to help Ohio win.

“I just figured shooting is one of the skills that I'm just good at,” said Tabeling. “Then (I) came here and had the Syracuse game, and I was like, ‘Wow, I'm definitely a better shooter than I am driver.’”

Since the game, Tabeling is Ohio’s primary threat for 3-point shots, and her play has changed the way Ohio runs its offense and how teams play defense against her.

She has made a tremendous impact for the Bobcats this season at a time when they needed it.

A Home Away from Home

For Ohio’s trio of star freshmen, adjusting on the court has been the biggest point of emphasis, to the point that their adjustments to college life off the court have gone unnoticed.

Being away from home can inspire more than just a feeling of distance, it can pose a mental barrier for first-year players. Williams and Fantroy said the mental barrier was one of their biggest challenges, but they have pushed through it and gained confidence throughout the season.

For Tabeling, her family has served as a support system back home and has been a huge part of her development throughout her career.

“My support system back home, my whole family, they were amazing,” Tabeling said. “They were always there if we needed anything, whether school or just life in general.”

It can be hard to adjust to college in many different ways. The schedule of college basketball is far more demanding than lower levels.

“We play a lot of games, so (my body has to adjust) to go from playing to practicing to lifting … and then going back and doing it all over again,” Fantroy said. “You live, you learn, you grow, you keep getting stronger.”

The Future of the Program

At the core of Ohio’s future sits Fantroy, Tabeling and Williams — three star freshmen who have already made their mark on the program. Sophomore guard Jaya McClure adds to the young star power the Bobcats hold.

All four players complement each other well, Tabeling as an ultra-reliable scoring option; Williams and McClure as lightning-quick guards with steady hands; and Fantroy as the glue that hold the team and quartet together, able to guard every position on the court.

It will be key for Ohio to hold on to this young nucleus of players that includes other freshmen Emma Barnett and Asiah Baxter, especially after star guard Yaya Felder transferred from Ohio to Baylor over the offseason.

With the option of the transfer portal looming, it is ever so important to win immediately, even with the bright future that Ohio has.

“You got to win now,” Boldon said. “I don’t know what the future holds for anybody in the state of college basketball right now.”

AUTHOR: Logan Adams and Charlie Fadel

COPY EDITOR: Addie Hedges

PHOTOGRAPHY: Abbie Kinney, Skylar Seavey and Jack Tatham