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The 5 Players To Look Out For This NCAA Tournament

Somehow, it’s February. Already, postseason award shortlists are coming out. The NCAA tournament is right around the corner. And while the logistics are still being sorted around what to expect for a single-site tournament in San Antonio, Texas, it’s never too early to start speculating about which teams are true contenders.

But while basketball is a team sport, every year, certain individuals make a fortuitous leap when it matters most. This year, these are the five players to keep an eye on, each of whom is capable of leading their team to NCAA tournament glory.

 

MICHAELA ONYENWERE, UCLA

Last year, UCLA Forward Michaela Onyenwere hinted at what was possible for both her and her team. At 18.9 points per game and 8.5 rebounds per game, she led the Bruins in both categories and was poised to bring the same talent to the national stage. Even with the NCAA Tournament cancelled, the outside world took notice.

Heading into this season, Onyenwere was viewed as a surefire first round pick and potentially a top five WNBA draft choice. This year, she has UCLA in the conversation as one of the nation’s top team. Using her voice on and off the court, her impact on the team is as great as ever. She still leads UCLA in rebounds at 8.1 per game and has moved to second in scoring with 17.1 due to the emergence of Charisma Osborne. But when UCLA took down Oregon on the road, it was Onyenwere pouring in 33 points.

Currently ranked eighth in the NET, UCLA is a borderline No. 1 seed. With a plethora of options and talent surrounding Onyenwere, the Bruins have a chance to make a deep tournament run. Expect Onyenwere to be leading the charge.

 

DANA EVANS, LOUISVILLE

Louisville’s senior guard Dana Evans is currently leading the nation’s top-ranked team with 20.1 points per game. Although Louisville may fall in the poll after their loss to No. 4 NC State, Evans’s impact on that game was right in line with what she has done for the Cardinals all year long. She scored 29 as the only player on her team to reach double digits, made 5-of-8 from distance, as well as all four from the free throw line, all while playing the entire 40 minutes.

Evans is sixth in the entire nation at 94% at the foul line and has had multiple clutch late-game moments, potentially foreshadowing greatness in March. Against Wake Forest, she also played 40 minutes and had the game-winning and-one layup with 8.0 seconds remaining to top off a 25-point game.

Her ascent is remarkable, from Sixth Player of the Year in the ACC in her sophomore season to the conference’s Player of the Year last season. But what’s even more impressive is that she continues to improve. This year, she is shooting 40.0% from 3-point land, and her 45.8% mark from the field is the best of her career. Her singular focus on winning a national championship is clearly paying off, as is her work in the offseason on improving her shot selection.

The 5-foot-6 senior from Gary, Indiana projects as a point guard at the next level and is currently averaging 4.2 assists per game with a 1.82 assist to turnover ratio. Over the last five games, she has played at least 36 minutes in each and scored at least 20 in four. As the season wears on, it seems teams have not found a way to contain either her speed or decision making ability, as Evans has proved nearly impossible to guard.

 

N’DEA JONES, TEXAS A&M

The nation’s double-double leader, Texas A&M’s N’Dea Jones is the only one on this list not on the 2021 Wooden Award Late Season Top 20 (a notable snub in this author’s opinion). Thankfully, the 6-foot-2 senior forward has let her play speak for itself. Her 12 double-doubles in 17 games are tied for first in the nation, a feat she is averaging for the second straight year with 13.7 points and 10.8 rebounds per game.

Maybe playing on an Aggies team ranked at 15th in the NET has lowered her profile, but don’t be surprised if Jones has Texas A&M clicking in the tournament. She averages nearly 31 minutes per game and leads the team in both points and rebounds. Her 57.0% field goal rate is almost as impressive as the fact that she graduated in three years. No doubt, her time is coming. Every year, certain players use the tournament to turn themselves into household names. This year, Jones has the chance to sneak up on everyone.

 

OLIVIA NELSON-ODODA, UCONN

UConn might be the title favorite at this point, and if so, Olivia Nelson-Ododa is the reason why. Paige Bueckers has been just as fantastic as we expected, but the 6-5 junior forward is the reason UConn is soaring. Unlike in past seasons, there is nowhere for Nelson-Ododa to disappear. UConn needs her now and on both ends of the court for scoring and rim protection. In UConn’s loss to Arkansas, foul trouble limited her to just 19 minutes, two shots and two points. While she needs to stay on the court, her absence underscored her value for the team.

Nelson-Ododa is shooting 64.22% from the field, the second best mark in the nation among qualified players. She’s had more than a few scoring outbursts, including a season-high 24 pts against Creighton which saw Nelson-Ododa hit a rare 3-pointer. She hit two more 3’s against Georgeotwon (after missing four against Tennessee) in a 31-point win without Bueckers on the floor.

Nelson-Ododa is in agreement with her coach Geno Auriemma that she is better when she is patient, calm and not caught up with the previous play. Her 14.2 points, 7.2 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per game seem to agree.

 

NAZ HILLMON, MICHIGAN

The nation’s most dynamic scorer, junior forward Naz Hillmon of Michigan has simply been outstanding. In her most recent game, a four point loss to Ohio State, she scored 50 points and added 16 rebounds. That raised her season average to 26.7 points per game, good enough for third in the sport. That also makes Michigan the only team in the AP Top 15 with a player in the top 15 scorers nationally.

Hillmon is doing it efficiently too. Her 63.58% shooting percentage is third in the country, while she is also contributing the third-most offensive rebounds per game (5.5) and the seventh most total rebounds (12.3) — the only player to rank in the top 10 in both scoring and rebounding.

In the Big Ten, Ohio State is looking like the top team, but has a self-imposed postseason ban. That puts pressure on Michigan, and Hillmon, to perform in the tournament. Right now, the Wolverines are 12th in the NET and on the border between a third and fourth seed. Hillmon’s leadership on and off the floor could be exactly what Michigan needs to land its highest-ever NCAA Tournament seed (they were previously a seventh seed in 2018).

She has scored in double figures in all but one game and has posted eight double-doubles in 11 contests. On top of it all, her 75% mark from the free throw line is the best of her career. If she gets on a roll come mid-to-late March, Hillmon could put together a tournament run for the ages.

Nelly Korda ties LPGA record with fifth-straight tournament win

Nelly Korda of the United States celebrates with the trophy after winning The Chevron Championship
Nelly Korda poses with her trophy after acing her fifth-straight tour title at The Chevron Championship on Sunday. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

25-year-old American pro golfer Nelly Korda secured her spot in LPGA history on Sunday, notching her fifth-straight title at this weekend's Chevron Championship in The Woodlands, Texas.

Ranked No. 1 in the world by Rolex Women’s World Golf Rankings, Korda joins Nancy Lopez (1978) and Annika Sörenstam (2005) as just the third LPGA player to rack up five consecutive tour wins. She is also the third No. 1-ranked player to capture The Chevron Championship victory since the rankings debuted in 2006, accompanied by Lorena Ochoa and Lydia Ko.

The Florida native shot three-under 69 in Sunday's final, besting Sweden's Maja Stark despite Stark's valiant come-from-behind attempt in the 18th. Korda finished with a four-day total of 13-under 275, celebrating her two-stroke win by cannonballing into Poppie's Pond, much to the crowd's delight. She left The Club at Carlton Woods with $1.2 million from an overall purse of $7.9 million.

It wasn't long ago that the two-time major champion's current winning streak seemed unimaginable. After maintaining her No. 1 position for 29 weeks, Korda underwent surgery to remove a blood clot from her left arm in 2022. She returned to the course not long after, but failed to win a single tournament in 2023 before seeing a surge in form during the first four months of 2024. As of today, she hasn't lost a tournament since January.

Korda will attempt a record sixth-straight win at next week's JM Eagle LA Championship at Wilshire Country Club in Los Angeles, where she'll vie for a cut of the $3.75 million purse.

Smith and Swanson shine in action-packed NWSL weekend

sophia smith celebrates after a goal for the portland thorns
Sophia Smith's 27th-minute goal paved the way for Portland's first win of the season. (Soobum Im/USA TODAY Sports)

USWNT regulars Sophia Smith and Mallory Swanson furthered their cases for Olympic inclusion with their respective club victories on Saturday and Sunday.

After a roller coaster of a week that saw former Thorns head coach Mike Norris reassigned and a flurry of last-minute roster reshufflings as Friday's trade window closure loomed, the NWSL sprung to life over the weekend with standout performances from ninth-place Portland and third-place Chicago, among others.

After her blocked attempt at goal set up a volleying sixth-minute opener from veteran Christine Sinclair — now the only player in history to record a goal in all 11 NWSL seasons — Smith swiftly netted her own in the 27th minute off a breakaway run that eluded Houston's backline. The goal represented Smith's third of the season as well as her 35th for the Thorns, ultimately leading to the home side's first win of the season in a 4-1 routing of the Dash.

But that wasn't Smith's only stat of the evening. The star forward also lapped former Chicago Red Star Sam Kerr to become the youngest player to reach 50 NWSL goal contributions across all games, chalking up 40 goals and 10 assists at the age of 23 years and 254 days.

"Obviously it feels good to get a win," said Smith in a post-match press conference. "But this is the standard the Thorns have always had. So a win is great, but a win is the expectation — we're hungrier than ever after the way we started."

170 miles up the road, Lumen Field similarly showcased some promising Olympic prospect footwork on Sunday. In Chicago's 2-1 victory over the lagging 13th-place Seattle Reign, striker Mallory Swanson racked up an impressive counterattack assist on fellow forward Ally Schlegel's fourth-minute goal. Swanson went on to find the back of the net herself before halftime, lacing an explosive ball into the top corner in the 31st minute, her second of the season after returning from a lengthy sidelining injury.

Speaking of injuries, fellow USWNT favorites Alex Morgan and Tierna Davidson were not as fortunate as their national squad teammates this weekend. Each exited their club matches early, Morgan with an ankle knock in San Diego's loss to Orlando and Davidson with an apparent hamstring incident early on in Washington's win over Gotham.

LSU takes first-ever NCAA gymnastics title

Kiya Johnson of the LSU Tigers reacts after winning the national championship during the Division I Women's Gymnastics Championships
Gymnast Kiya Johnson celebrates LSU's win at the NCAA Division I Women's Gymnastics Championships. (Photo by C. Morgan Engel/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

LSU came out on top at the 2024 NCAA women's gymnastics championship in Fort Worth on Saturday, besting Cal, Utah, and Florida to capture their first-ever title.

The Tigers' win was far from a landslide. LSU took the first rotation handily thanks to 2024 All-Around winner Haleigh Bryant's team-leading 9.9375 backed by four additional 9.9+ scores from her teammates. But Utah then responded with three strong beam performances of their own, causing the Red Rocks to slide confidently into second place by the end of the second rotation.

By the halfway point, all four teams fell within .288 points of one another before Utah overtook the pack with a dominant floor showing after three rotations. LSU then went on to ace the beam event with Konnor McClain's meet-leading 9.9625 score, coming away with the highest collective score ever awarded to the event in NCAA championship history. The achievement propelled the Tigers to victory, ensuring them the title after the final rotation.

"This team is full of individuals that have incredible character and integrity and love for each other and all the things you hear from coaches when they sit at a podium like this in a moment of victory, but I promise you it's a real thing," said LSU coach Jay Clark in a post-meet press conference. "I'm just so happy for them."

Contributing to Saturday's atmosphere of excitement was the absence of last year's champion and this year's heavily favored Oklahoma Sooners. Hot off earning the highest team score in NCAA history just last month, the top-ranked Norman squad suffered a shocking loss in the semifinals, where five major mistakes contributed to a third-place finish and a season-low team score of 196.6625.

With Oklahoma out, it was truly anyone's game.

"Every team was out there fighting for their lives — all four teams, it could have gone any of four ways out there," Clark told reporters. "As much as I feel for what happened to Oklahoma in the semifinals, I think it made for a championship that became so packed with emotion because every team out there believed they could do it. It was just tremendous."

LSU is now the eighth program in the sport's history to earn an NCAA women's gymnastic championship.
They share the honor with Georgia, Utah, UCLA, Oklahoma, Alabama, Florida, and Michigan.

Cameron Brink likes Caitlin Clark for 2024 WNBA Rookie of the Year

Cameron Brink poses with Caitlin Clark at 2024 wnba draft in new york
Cameron Brink poses with fellow draftee — and possible WNBA ROY —Caitlin Clark. (Photo by Emily Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images)

Cameron Brink already has her rookie of the year pick for the upcoming WNBA season, and it’s Indiana-bound star Caitlin Clark

In the latest edition of Kelley on the Street, host Kelley O'Hara caught up with Brink in New York hours before the Stanford phenom went No. 2 overall to the Los Angeles Sparks at the 2024 WNBA Draft. When O’Hara asked who would win the WNBA's rookie of the year, she answered without pause.

"Caitlin Clark," she said, while a fan commented that she thought Brink would take home the award. Brink later added that the extra foul granted to WNBA players will be "good for me."

"I hope it’s me," Charisma Osborne, who was later drafted by the Phoenix Mercury, said when asked her ROY prediction. "But, I don’t know — we’ll see."

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