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Rick Nixon | | December 23, 2020

Baylor's NaLyssa Smith headlines this week's starting 5, the top players in women's basketball

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Every week throughout the 2020-21 season, the Starting Five will highlight the top women's basketball players in the country. Here are the standouts from the past week:

Arella Guirantes, Rutgers

Rutgers Athletics Rutgers' Arella Guirantes

Redshirt senior guard Arella Guirantes of Rutgers earned Big Ten Player of the Week honors by averaging 27.7 points, 8.7 rebounds and 6.0 assists during a busy 2-1 week for the Scarlet Knights, which included a close, four-point setback to No. 14 Maryland and a pair of wins over Hampton and Sacred Heart with a combined 118-point margin of victory.

Guirantes reached the 30-point plateau for the third time in her career with 33 points against Maryland last Monday, then connected on a career-high five three-pointers in the 94-45 Dec. 18 home win over Hampton. On Sunday, Guirantes finished with 25 points and 10 rebounds for her second double-double of the season and ninth in her career as Rutgers rolled to a 99-30 win over Sacred Heart.

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Over the three games, Guirantes added seven blocks and seven steals on defense while leading an offense that scored 80 or more points in three consecutive games for the first time in the C. Vivian Stringer era at Rutgers – the first time since the 1993-94 season.

Guirantes ranks third in the Big Ten and 15th in the nation with 24.2 points per game and has now totaled 1,413 career points, tied for 16th in history of any player to wear the Rutgers uniform.

The Scarlet Knights continue non-conference play on Wednesday, Dec. 23 against Manhattan. Big Ten play resumes on the road at Iowa on Thursday, Dec. 31.

Anastasia Hayes, Middle Tennessee

Middle Tennessee Athletics Middle Tennessee's Anastasia Hayes

Conference USA Preseason Co-Player of the Year, Middle Tennessee’s Anastasia Hayes averaged 32 points, 7.5 rebounds, 6.5 assists and 1.5 steals in two Lady Raider victories over Troy and Lipscomb.

After playing well in their first three games but going winless, Middle Tennessee came out focused on putting visiting Troy (3-3) away early. They scored a program record 37 points in the first quarter and built a 23-point halftime lead before winning 92-76. Hayes recorded her second double-double of the season against the Sun Belt Conference defending champion and preseason favorite Troy with 29 points and 10 assists to go with seven rebounds.

The junior then scored 35 points, two off her career high, on 12-of-21 shooting to lead Middle Tennessee (2-3) to an 84-64 win over Lipscomb, also adding eight rebounds. The 35 points are the most by a C-USA player this season. Hayes came out aggressive from the opening tip, scoring 21 points in the first half as the Lady Raiders opened up as much as a 14-point lead.

Hayes is leading C-USA with a scoring average of 27.2 points per game, scoring at least 24 points in nine straight games dating back to last season.

Middle Tennessee will be looking to ride its momentum from back-to-back wins into C-USA play. Florida Atlantic will travel to Murfreesboro Jan. 1 and 2 to kick off league action.

Valerie Higgins, Pacific

Pacific Athletics Pacific's Valerie Higgins

Making her much-anticipated debut, Pacific senior forward Valerie Higgins scored in double figures in all three games for the Tigers last week.

After multiple postponements and cancellations in the opening weeks of the college basketball season, Pacific finally got to compete for the first time since March 7, but ultimately fell to No. 1 Stanford, 104-61, in its first game on Dec. 16.  Higgins had 10 points and four rebounds for Pacific in a game that saw Cardinal head coach Tara VanDerveer became the all-time winningest coach in NCAA Division I women's basketball history, surpassing the iconic Pat Summit for win number 1,099.

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Higgins had 13 points and eight rebounds as Pacific defeated LSU, 73-64, on Dec. 19 in Las Vegas on Saturday. It was Pacific’s first win in 288 days, and marked the first time that the Tigers have defeated LSU in program history, with their only other matchup coming on Dec. 30, 1988.

The 6-1 guard then notched the 26th double-double of her career with a 24 point, 11 rebound performance against UNLV on Sunday in a thrilling 77-75 double overtime victory. Higgins also added an impressive eight steals and four assists against the Lady Rebels.

For the week, Higgins averaged 15.7 points, 7.7 rebounds, 3.7 steals, 3.3 assists and 2.0 blocks. Higgins also has connected on 19-of-24 from the free throw line (79.2 percent) so far this season.

Pacific (2-1) will next open West Coast Conference play at Saint Mary’s on Dec. 30.

Hannah Sjerven, South Dakota

South Dakota Athletics South Dakota's Hannah Sjerven

South Dakota senior center Hannah Sjerven became the first Division I player to post a 30-20 stat line this season. 

The Summit League Player of the Week, Sjerven averaged 23.0 points and 14.0 rebounds as South Dakota split of pair of games versus Bradley and Oklahoma.  Sjerven tallied a career-best 31 points and 21 rebounds in South Dakota's 84-68 road win at Bradley on Thursday. She posted the first 30-20 game by a Coyote since NCAA Division II Player of the Year Mandy Koupal in 2003. Her 21 rebounds ranks fourth in the NCAA for a single-game performance this year.

In an 83-70 loss on Sunday at Oklahoma, Sjerven added 15 points, seven boards and three blocks in only 22 minutes before fouling out.

Sjerven leads the Summit in scoring (18.3), field-goal percentage (.633) and blocked shots (2.7) this season. She also ranks second in the league for rebounds (10.0) and is one of 39 players nationally averaging a double-double.

South Dakota (3-3) returns to action on Jan. 2 at home versus Denver.

NaLyssa Smith, Baylor

Baylor Athletics Baylor's NaLyssa Smith

In a busy week for Baylor that saw the Lady Bears go 4-0 with wins over Texas Tech, Southern, Northwestern State and McNeese State, junior forward NaLyssa Smith averaged 20.3 points, 9.0 rebounds and 1.8 steals while shooting 64.4 percent from the floor while playing an average of only 20.3 minutes per contest.

Smith, the Big 12 Preseason Player of the Year, made 6-of-9 from the floor and a near-perfect 9-of-10 from the line, finishing with 21 points and nine rebounds in a 91-45 win over Texas Tech on Dec. 14. She had a game-high 16 points in Baylor’s 86-52 win over Southern on Dec. 16. 

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Smith’s top performance was a 30-point outing against Northwestern State to tie a career-high in a 136-43 blowout of the Lady Demons on Dec. 18.  On Saturday she capped the busy week with 14 points and 11 rebounds while playing only 17 minutes as Baylor routed McNeese State 117-24.

Baylor (7-1) and currently ranked No. 7 in the latest Associated Press Top-25 poll, is off until resuming Big 12 play on Jan. 2 at TCU, before returning home to host third-ranked UConn on Jan. 7.

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