Celeste Taylor did everything she could at Duke. Taylor, the 2023 ACC Defensive Player of the Year, was a big reason Duke reached its first NCAA Tournament since 2018. From the moment she arrived in 2021, she was the player coach in He supported Kara Lawson to help establish the culture he wanted.
Between finding his voice as a leader, helping younger players with film and Xs and Os, there wasn't much Taylor didn't have a hand in at Duke. When the Blue Devils faced Colorado in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, his impact on the court was also on display. He finished with eight points, 10 rebounds, 10 steals and eight assists, but Duke lost 61-53 in overtime. He wished he had shot better than 21 percent in the loss, but it was hard to watch that game and see more of what Taylor could do. Still, the loss devastated her.
Through tears, Taylor met her biggest fans, her parents Alex and Selene Navarro, after the game. That moment took her father back to Taylor's eighth grade when her grassroots team lost a game and she cried during the car ride home. It was the same scenario; Taylor did everything on the court but she wanted to do more.
“I said, 'Celeste, why are you crying?' She said, 'We lost the game and I couldn't score,'” Navarro said. “She was young and I told her that those offensive rebounds added six more points, those stops you got became points.”
After arriving home, Navarro received a call from Taylor's base coach who told him that a college coach wanted to talk to him about Taylor. Despite the loss, the coach loved Taylor's game for the same reasons Navarro told his daughter: She impacts the game in every facet.
It's the same now. Taylor is a do-it-all player for No. 12 Ohio State, where she transferred from Duke after last season. She is averaging 7.6 points per game, fourth behind the Buckeyes. She also has her and team-high 3.8 assists per game, a team-high five blocks, and ranks second among the Buckeyes with 23 steals. But the player Ohio State fans are getting to know best wouldn't be who she is without moments like the Colorado loss or everything that came before.
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It's in her lowest moments, when tears flow after a tough loss or when injuries kept her out of games, that shaped Taylor's outlook. She remains the ultra-competitive player who was ranked 40th as a high school recruit and wants to finish her final college season on top. But as she enters her fifth year, she is also mature enough to understand that she is more than just a basketball player. “I want to leave a legacy that I can leave behind in terms of people seeing the person that I am,” Taylor said. “It's about trying to make the world a better place.”
Whenever the NCAA tournament ended for Duke, Taylor's college career would end. That was the plan she and her family had come up with. She was ready to head to the WNBA. They even picked an agent.
But shortly after Colorado's loss last season, Taylor had a conversation with his family. Navarro said he thought Taylor could use another year of college; he could earn a master's degree after majoring in psychology at Duke and then pursue a professional career. Taylor disagreed, but promised that she would think about it in the coming days. The next morning, Taylor called his parents and told them he was inside. He was going back to Duke.
However, the return was short-lived.
Relationships are of great importance to Taylor, who has three siblings and talks to her mother several times a day. Because the family felt a close bond with Ohio State coach Kevin McGuff, Taylor strongly felt the Buckeyes would finish high school. But she ultimately chose Texas because of another strong relationship with Karon Aston.
At Duke, Lawson was loved by the family, but his closest relationship was with assistant coach Winston Gandy. During his two years at Duke, Taylor built a close relationship with Gandy. Every time she needed to exercise, watch a movie or talk, she went to Gandy. She even helped Navarro move Taylor into her new apartment ahead of her second season.
But days after Taylor announced he was staying at Duke, Navarro received a call from Gandy. “I have bad news for you,” Gandy said. Navarro thought maybe Duke lost a recruit or something, but Gandy said he was taking an assistant coaching job at South Carolina under coach Dawn Staley. Navarro was selfishly disappointed, but realized that he couldn't let the job go.
Taylor heard about Navarro shortly after and knew a change needed to be made. “Celeste said, 'Okay, I have to go to the portal. “I can’t bet on my senior year who Kara will bring or not,” Navarro said. Things changed quickly for Taylor after that.
The experience of transferring from Texas to Duke gave him insight into the transfer process. But this time it was different. He had one year left. He couldn't go anywhere and help reintroduce themselves to a new culture; she wanted it to be a program that was already established and she could come in and help improve it. The family focused on coaches and programs they had already developed relationships with. McGuff entered.
This was the third time he recruited Taylor. This was the right time for Taylor.
Ohio State had just come off an Elite Eight run and needed a dynamic, experienced guard after the departure of Taylor Mikesell, who was drafted by the Indiana Fever. Taylor wanted to play somewhere he would fit in, improve his game and work with a coaching staff that would push him. It was a perfect match.
Taylor played on the high school varsity team when he was in seventh grade and averaged 10 points per game. But Navarro had a message for her: she wasn't as good as she thought.
“These girls are that bad,” he said. “I told him we had to get you out of here because you're not going to get better and you're going to have a false idea of how good you can be.”
He left public school and went to Long Island Lutheran for eighth grade. Navarro constantly communicated to her daughter that by committing to her defense, her coach would have to put her on the court. One of the best parts of Taylor's game was her high basketball IQ, but mixed with her relentlessness on the court. That made her the perfect fit for Ohio State and McGuff.
Ohio State's run in the tournament last season was due to the strength of its elite defense. The Buckeyes held their opponents to 68 points per game, which wasn't near the top of the country, but that's because Ohio State rushed teams with their press.
So when Taylor entered the portal, it was a no-brainer for McGuff to approach. And he has worked out so far this season. Ohio State is allowing just 60 points per game, but Taylor is also helping in half-court defense, a facet of the game that Ohio State struggled with last season. Teams are shooting just 38 percent from the field against the Buckeyes, an improvement from 43 percent a year ago.
For Taylor, however, the adjustment is about more than just defense. Ohio State's plethora of scoring options, such as Jacy Sheldon and Cotie McMahon, has allowed Taylor to showcase more of his playmaking abilities as well. At Duke, Taylor was forced to do a lot on offense and averaged over 10 shot attempts per game. At Ohio State he can play without as much attention being paid to him.
Celeste Taylor found her chance a few weeks ago and hasn't looked back
Huge bucket late pic.twitter.com/FwuVFUzWvr
—Mark Schindler (@MG_Schindler) December 10, 2023
“Here, how can you focus on one player when they are all proven goalscorers?” Taylor said. “So it's about being able to make open shots, and I think personally, and this is new for my offensive game, it's the assist department. I want to show that I can pass the ball. I worked a lot on this at Duke. “I’ve always been ahead of the game in seeing things before they happen.”
Although his shooting percentage has dropped to 34 percent, he is making an impact on both sides of the ball.
After the loss to Colorado, Taylor struggled to think about anything other than the end of his college career. But his parents emphasized that he had nothing to be disappointed about. Between his two years at Texas and the impact he had at Duke, he left a strong legacy. Navarro told Taylor, “The culture has changed forever.” Taylor would have had a hard time accepting that years ago.
“I don't want to say I wasn't patient, but when you're young it's instant gratification,” Taylor said. “Everyone feels like they deserve this and that.”
Taylor is not like that anymore. As she sat in Ohio State's practice gym earlier this season talking about her journey, she said it's hard to think about. From the excitement of arriving in Texas to play for Aston, to her coach being fired, to the COVID-19 years, to the injuries at Duke and even the success. Taylor says she appreciates these experiences and has grown from them.
“My parents always told me things when I was younger, and I thought I didn't want to hear about the past or think about it,” Taylor said. “Did I plan on going to Texas and saying, 'Oh, after that, I'm going to transfer twice?' No. That was never in my head. …It is crucial to be able to sit and reflect. If you don't sit and reflect, how can you grow as a person? As a college athlete it's hard because you think I need to go and go and go, and when you look back you're already a senior. “You can only grow as a person if you sit down and have that perspective.”
Navarro has also seen a change in Taylor. The smile he had when he left for Texas as a freshman dimmed over time as he dealt with COVID-19 and was thousands of miles from home. “I would tell my wife that he doesn't look like the same kid who went to Texas,” Navarro said. “The happiness, the smile, I don't see that.”
When they visited Ohio State, she saw him again. For the first time in years, he saw her daughter with the same joy she had on the court while she was growing up.
“I think he's at peace with what he's done,” Navarro said. “I think she connects with McGuff on a level that allows her to be herself. She feels very comfortable and stops trying to impress people or play to get selected. I think she's just playing for herself and that's what got her to where she was in the beginning. “She is living in the moment.”
The high expectations for Ohio State this season are a motivation for Taylor. “People are waiting for this and I will always work as hard as I can to make this happen,” Taylor said. “That's what broke me last year after not beating Colorado. It was never about other people saying we had to win that game because we were the top seed. It was me. I feel like I could have done more, but I did pretty much everything I could. I gave it my all. That's all I expect from myself.”
Taylor has helped lead Ohio State to a 9-1 record heading into Monday's top-15 matchup against second-ranked UCLA. Win or lose, Taylor is at peace with herself because she has a purpose. “Be happy,” she said. “It's about being happy in every moment.”
The rest can come later.
(Top photo by Celeste Taylor: Jason Mowry/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
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