Stars of the Sweet 16: The difference-makers for each winning team

NC State's Raina Perez (Elsa/Getty Images)

The Sweet 16 started with a seven-point South Carolina win over North Carolina, and ended with a game-winning layup from a freshman to propel Michigan past South Dakota. As for the action in between, it was just as exciting.

The Elite Eight is set, and it took some serious star power to get there. Here are eight players who stood out in the Sweet 16.

South Carolina 69, North Carolina 61

Aliyah Boston

Aliyah Boston finished with 28 points and 22 rebounds against North Carolina. I really don’t need to say much more. Those stats speak for themselves. She was also 12-for-13 from the free-throw line, and 12 of her rebounds came on the offensive end. The Gamecocks can shoot more freely knowing they have Boston to clean up the boards. It also means extra possessions, and in close games, those are crucial.

Stanford 72, Maryland 66

Haley Jones

I’m hard pressed to choose a player to highlight from Stanford, because everyone on the floor is performing at a high level. But Haley Jones excelled a little more than the rest on Friday, mostly because of the way she read Maryland’s defense and forced the Terrapins to change their game plan.

Texas 66, Ohio State 63

Rori Harmon

This pick might be controversial given that Rori Harmon didn’t perform the way we are used to seeing on offense, but the freshman impressed me with the way she was able to make an impact in other ways. Harmon’s ability to play relentless defense exhausts an opposing offense, and she made Ohio State’s guards work on every possession.

What’s more, despite her struggles, Harmon stepped up in key moments. Her jumper with 1:16 left gave the Longhorns a three-point lead. Then the guard played her patented defense, helping Texas stop Ohio State from getting a solid look. Finally, she sealed the game at the free-throw line, making two with 11 seconds left.

Creighton 76, Iowa State 68

Morgan Maly

I can’t say enough about Morgan Maly. It takes a certain kind of player to consistently deliver off the bench, and Maly is that player. Against Iowa State, she shot 70 percent from the field and poured in 21 points in just 24 minutes. That means she was averaging .88 of a point every minute. The sophomore guard also scored 14 of Creighton’s 17 points in the second quarter, keeping the Bluejays even with Iowa State going into the half. She recorded her seven remaining points in the third as her team began to build a lead.

NC State 66, Notre Dame 63

Raina Perez

It couldn’t be anyone else. The senior guard was vital to the NC State defense, securing four steals. One, of course, sticks out from the rest. With 21 seconds left, trailing Notre Dame by one, Perez was patient with her on-ball defense, waiting until Dara Mabrey made a mistake. When the Notre Dame senior guard left the ball vulnerable at the start of a spin move, Perez tapped the ball away and went to the other end for the go-ahead layup. Perez then secured a defensive rebound and hit two free throws to secure the victory.

Louisville 76, Tennessee 64

Emily Engstler

Emily Engstler has been phenomenal through the first three games of the tournament, but her performance in Louisville’s win over Tennessee on Saturday was her best yet. Engstler’s impact was summed up in a 20-second stretch during the first quarter.

The forward blocked a driving Vols player, grabbed a defensive rebound and then made a heads-up outlet pass to Kiana Smith as she was streaking up the court. It set up Hailey Van Lith for an open 3-point attempt, and when the sophomore was off the mark, Engstler slid into an open space. After Louisville got the offensive rebound, she fired a 3-pointer of her own, which went down for three of her 20 points. The senior also had 10 rebounds and three blocks in the win.

UConn 75, Indiana 58

Olivia Nelson-Ododa

After UConn escaped upset-minded UCF, I wrote that the Huskies needed to get contributions from more than just a few players. In the win over Indiana, they certainly did. And atop the list of impact players is Olivia Nelson-Ododa. The forward was an efficient 5-for-9 from the floor for 10 points, but more importantly, Nelson-Ododa grabbed a team-high 14 rebounds. She helped UConn out-rebound the Hoosiers 39-27 and had five offensive boards, giving the Huskies extra possessions. Defensively, Nelson-Ododa was a wall in the paint, forcing Indiana to take off-balance and contested shots.

Michigan 52, South Dakota 49

Laila Phelia

Against Villanova, Laila Phelia was quiet, but the freshman more than made up for it Saturday against South Dakota. With the game tied at 48 with 23 seconds left in regulation, Phelia used her strength to drive and finish a contested layup. It was the play of the game for the Wolverines, but the guard was solid throughout the contest. She finished with 14 points, going 5-for-7 from the field and 2-for-3 from beyond the arc.

Eden Laase is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports. She previously ran her own high school sports website in Michigan after covering college hockey and interning at Sports Illustrated. Follow her on Twitter @eden_laase.