NEW YORK (AP) — The women’s basketball NCAA Tournament is set to tip Friday and here are a few players that may be the difference between a top team making a deep run in the tournament and not making it out of the first weekend. All the players come from the major conferences.
Lexie Brown, Duke: A lot was made of Brown’s decision to leave Maryland after her sophomore year. She had led the Terrapins to consecutive Final Four appearances. Brown’s done great things at Duke the past two seasons and hopes to get the Blue Devils out of the first weekend for the first time since 2015.
Jordin Canada, UCLA: One of the quickest players on the court with and without the basketball. The Bruins’ senior point guard set the Pac-12 record for assists and became the first player in conference history to have over 1,800 points and 700 assists. UCLA has made it to the regional semifinals in consecutive seaons and Canada will be the key for the Bruins to make it further.
Asia Durr, Louisville: The ACC player of the year was a big reason the Cardinals earned their first No. 1 seed in school history. She’s had some huge games this season, including a 47-point effort against Ohio State and 36 against Notre Dame. Durr shoots 41 percent from behind the 3-point arc. The junior will be key for Louisville to make it to the Final Four for the first time since 2013.
Sabrina Ionescu, Oregon: Ionescu could also be known as Ms. Triple-Double as the sophomore has already broken the NCAA mark with nine in her young career. She is one of the best point guards in the country and proved that she can also score when needed, putting in a career-high 36 points in the Pac-12 title game. The Ducks will go as far as Ionescu can take them.
Kelsey Mitchell, Ohio State: Is only 30 points away from moving into second on the NCAA all-time scoring list. Mitchell would gladly trade that for getting the Buckeyes back to Columbus, Ohio, for the Final Four. The senior guard averaged 24.5 points this season and if Ohio State can make it to the national semifinals, she has a chance to break Kelsey Plum’s all-time scoring mark. Mitchell is 164 points behind the record.
Kia Nurse, UConn: The Huskies’ senior leader not only can score, but she is the team’s best defender. Nurse constantly draws the assignment of the other team’s top guard. Even when she’s not putting points up, she’s making her mark on the court. Nurse hit 13 consecutive 3-pointers during the season over a three-game stretch.
Kalani Brown, Baylor: One of the top post players in the country, she had a tremendous season with 20.2 points and 10.1 rebounds a game for the Lady Bears. The Big 12 player of the year spent the offseason improving her fitness and was able to stay on the court for longer periods of time this year. With starting point guard Kristy Wallace lost for the season with an ACL injury, Brown will have to be even more dominant inside.
Megan Gustafson, Iowa: Gustafson led the country in scoring and was top five in rebounding for the Hawkeyes. She had 48 points in a Big Ten Tournament loss to Minnesota and is going to be a handful for opponents to stop. Iowa will go as far as their junior center can take them.
Marie Gulich, Oregon State: The 6-foot-5 German really improved her play this season averaging 17.1 points, 8.9 rebounds and nearly three blocks a game. She shot 66 percent from the field and helped the Beavers to a solid season.
Katie Lou Samuelson, UConn: A candidate for nearly every major award this year, the junior forward really improved her game this season. She’s deadly from 3-point range and has shown a great touch passing the ball as well. UConn has clearly lots of options on offense, but Samuelson is the most important one.
Teaira McCowan, Mississippi State: Had a stellar season for the Bulldogs, averaging 17.7 points, 13.2 rebounds and shot 60 percent from the field. The only issue is that she can get into foul trouble, but if she can stay on the court, she’s a difference-maker on both ends. The 6-foot-7 junior center’s best game came against Oregon early in the season when she had 35 points, 19 rebounds and blocked five shots.
Jessica Shepard, Notre Dame: One of the biggest moves of the season in college basketball was the NCAA granting Shepard immediate eligiblity to play for the Irish. With all the injuries the Irish suffered this year — four ACLs — she gave Notre Dame a solid front court player. Sure the Irish’s backcourt of Arike Ogunbowale and Marina Mabrey is huge, but Shepard may be the key to another deep run by the No. 1 team in Spokane.
A’ja Wilson, South Carolina: Wilson carried the defending champion Gamecocks on her shoulders this season. She won the SEC player of the year for the third time and didn’t let vertigo stop her from being the conference tournament MVP leading South Carolina to a fourth straight crown. She’s the consenus No. 1 pick in next month’s WNBA draft, but before that she’s hoping to lead the Gamecocks back to the Final Four and defend their crown.
Follow Doug on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/dougfeinberg