When the 2020 NCAA women’s basketball tournament begins next month, there will be a handful of players who rise above the rest. These are the players built for March, the ones determined to reach their sport’s biggest stage at the Final Four.
A season ago, these were players like Baylor’s Kalani Brown, who dominated her opponents in the paint by rebounding, blocking and scoring at a high level. Players like Notre Dame’s Jackie Young, who did little bit of everything for her team en route to an ACC title and another Final Four appearance. Players who put their teams on their backs and dragged them to the top, like Oregon’s Sabrina Ionescu. And players like UConn’s Napheesa Collier, who led her team by piling up double-doubles.
This year, several teams have emerged as legit Final Four contenders. And beyond that, we’ve seen a sampling of what their top players are capable of in big games on big stages. When games get tight, these are the players who can make a difference.
These are the players who can impact the race to the 2020 Final Four.
Ruthy Hebard, Oregon
It might be easy for casual observers of women’s basketball to overlook Hebard. After all, she’s on the same team as the viral human highlight clip, Sabrina Ionescu. Still, a closer look says that Hebard has had just as much of an impact on Oregon’s success this season, and there’s evidence that points to her being a factor in crunch-time in March.
For starters, Hebard leads the Pac-12 in rebounds per-game (9.6) and field goal percentage (67.6). She also ranks third in the country in the latter statistic. Hebard is also fourth in the Pac-12 in scoring, averaging 17.2 points per-game. Last week, Hebard led Oregon to wins over USC and then-ranked No. 7 UCLA, totaling 52 points and 27 rebounds — performances that earned her the nod for Pac-12 Player of the Week.
A 6-4 native of Fairbanks, Alaska, Hebard has played well in games against top opponents this year too. In a win over UConn, she had 22 points, 12 rebounds and two blocks. Against Louisville, she had a double-double, plus two assists, three blocks and two steals.
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Aliyah Boston, South Carolina
It’s hard to believe she’s just a freshman, but the play of Boston has been a big reason why South Carolina is ranked No. 1 overall in the AP Top 25 poll. Boston is second in the SEC in field goal percentage (62.9), fifth in rebounds per-game (9.0) and second in blocks per-game (2.7).
The 6-5 native of St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands has been a force all season long for the Gamecocks. She notched a triple-double in her first collegiate game, grabbed 25 rebounds in a win over then-ranked No. 21 Arkansas, and scored 21 points in a win over then-ranked No. 9 Mississippi State. Boston also played well in South Carolina’s November win over No. 2 Baylor, piling up 20 points, 13 rebounds and two blocks.
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And in a win over UConn — South Carolina’s first after eight unsuccessful tries — Boston showed a different wrinkle to her game, knocking down a 3-pointer. She finished the game with 13 points, 12 rebounds, two blocks and three steals.
“I’ve started to get a little more confident when it comes to my outside shot,” Boston said. “I’ve been working on it in practice a little bit more.”
Gamecocks head coach Dawn Staley added: “It wasn’t an emphasis going in. I just felt like, we could not get her the ball in the paint. Let her step out. Let her shoot.”
Boston expanding her shooting range was something UConn didn’t expect. If she keeps improving her game, other teams should be fearful in March.
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Elissa Cunane, N.C. State
A 6--5 sophomore, Cunane has helped N.C. State become a contender. She’s sixth in the ACC in points per-game (16.7) first in rebounds per-game (10.2), second in field goal percentage (55.1), sixth in free throw percentage (80.3), first in double-doubles (12) and is a candidate for the Naismith and Leslie awards.
Cunane has helped lead N.C. State to a 22-3 record and its best AP Top 25 ranking in two decades, when the Wolfpack were ranked No. 4 a week ago. The Summerfield, North Carolina native is the focal point of N.C. State's offense. She’s exceptional at scoring around the rim, drawing fouls and dishing out to her teammates for open three-pointers.
The latter is what makes her so difficult to guard, according to Duke head coach Joanne P. McCallie. The Wolfpack are shooting 36.1 percent from 3-point range as a team this year and have five players who have knocked down at least 23 looks from behind the arc this season.
“Actually, her teammates,” McCallie said when asked what makes Cunane such a tough matchup. “What I mean by that is, their ability to shoot the three-ball. She’s able to do what she does because you have to guard both post and perimeter. Of course, she has great talents individually and is a very much improved player… She’s a very good free throw shooter. So, it’s all of those factors, I think.”
After recording 16 points, 15 rebounds and two blocks in a win over Maryland in December, Terps head coach Brenda Frese said of Cunane, “Elissa was terrific and (N.C. State) was really dominant when you talk about the physicality inside.”
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Elizabeth Balogun, Louisville
One of the few teams to beat N.C. State this year was Louisville. It happened just last week when the Cardinals were coming off back-to-back losses. The difference in the losses and the win over the Wolfpack though was the presence of Balogun, who returned to the Louisville lineup after a stint with the Nigerian national team for Olympic qualifying.
Balogun — who transferred into Louisville this season after claiming ACC Freshman of the Year honors at Georgia Tech — tallied nine points, seven rebounds and a block in 22 minutes of play for the Cardinals. But she also did things that don’t show up on the stat sheet, according to Louisville head coach Jeff Walz.
“Just her presence on the floor spreads things out. You got to defend her. She rebounded the ball tonight. And she makes the one three, but it sure was a big one,” Walz said. “I was really proud and excited to have her back.”
A 6-1 native of Chattanooga, Tennessee, Balogun does a little bit of everything for Louisville. That was on display when the Cardinals upset then-ranked No. 1 Oregon this season, as she racked up 11 points, four rebounds, two blocks and steal in 40 minutes of play.
Balogun has proven to be a smart passer, a good rebounder for her position, a feisty defender and a respectable 3-point shooter, knocking down 33 percent of her attempts this season. She’s shown she can impact a game in a variety of ways for the Cardinals.
Crystal Dangerfield, UConn
Dangerfield is having another stellar season for the Huskies. With 16.1 points per-game, she’s sixth in the American Athletic Conference in scoring, fourth in field goal percentage (47.4), sixth in assists per-game (4.1), first in 3-point percentage (43.2) and second in assist-turnover ration (+2.2).
But Dangerfield’s most important asset to the Huskies this season is difficult to quantify. On a team where most of the other starters are underclassmen, the leadership and experience of Dangerfield is crucial and valuable, especially in important games.
It was on display against No. 1 South Carolina. While some other UConn players struggled, Dangerfield kept fighting. She ended up with a stellar stat line of 25 points, four rebounds and two assists.
“Crystal did her part tonight — more than her part — and she shouldn’t have to do that,” UConn head coach Geno Auriemma said after the loss to South Carolina. “I’m not surprised Crystal played pretty well down here. She’s a senior. She’s been through a lot of these teams. And she’s played 40 minutes in these games… She has a history of, ‘I can do this.’ Nobody (else) on this team has a history of being able to do that in a big road game.”
Dangerfield has played in three Final Fours. UConn will be relying on her to lead the Huskies back there again.
Kaila Charles, Maryland
Charles is another player who can and will do everything in her power to help her team win. In the Big Ten this year, the conference’s Preseason Player of the Year is eighth in points per-game (15.1), eighth in rebounds per-game (7.8), fourth in field goal percentage (50.3), ninth in steals per-game (1.8) and third in offensive boards per-game (3.8).
A 6-1 guard from Glen Dale, Maryland, Charles was tabbed as a preseason All-American and was recently named as a finalist for the Miller Award. She leads the Terps in scoring and rebounding and is a large reason why they’ve won 11 games in a row. Charles has raised her game recently, scoring above her averaging in six of her last eight contests.
As a senior, Charles has experienced being on the big stage before for the Terps. A season ago, she dropped 36 points on Iowa in the Big Ten tournament and then 23 points on UCLA in the NCAA tournament. How Charles plays this postseason could play a crucial factor in how far Brenda Frese’s Terps can go.
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DiDi Richards, Baylor
Richards is not the best rebounder or scorer for the Lady Bears, but she might be the player who is the most versatile and the one who gives maximum effort at all times. And she has experience playing on the biggest stage in women’s college basketball.
A season ago, Richards’ defense on Ionescu in the Final Four was one of the main factors in Baylor’s semifinal win. She followed that up by tallying six points, six assists, two steals and a rebound in the Lady Bears’ championship win over Notre Dame. Richards was named to the All-Big 12 Defensive Team and the 2019 Greensboro Regional Team last season.
This year, the 6-foot-1 guard from Cypress, Texas is doing a little bit of everything again, averaging 8.3 points, 4.8 rebounds, 5.5 assists and 2.1 steals per-game while shooting 50.7 percent from the field and 78.7 percent from the charity stripe. Of note, she scored 20 points in a win over then-ranked No. 17 Indiana, had seven rebounds and five assists in a win over then-ranked No. 1 UConn, and dropped double-doubles in back-to-back wins over Iowa State and Texas.
Richards is also one of the best in the country when it comes to taking care of the ball. She’s eighth in the nation with an assist-turnover ratio of +2.83. Her 133 assists are 20th best in the country.
If Baylor makes it back to the Final Four, look for Richards’ name to pop up all over the stat sheet.