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The five players who will decide the NCAA Final Four

Christyn Williams of UConn.
C. Morgan Engel/Getty Images

You might think that all the last teams standing in the NCAA tournament would be built on a similar blueprint. Maybe the secret to success in college hoops is playing fast. Maybe it’s having dominant post players or high-scoring guards. 

But what this year has proven is that there is no single path to success. Each of the remaining teams plays a different style of basketball, and they’re all hard to stop. 

South Carolina, for example, crashes the boards, and then crashes the boards some more. Stanford shoots 38.3% from three, noticeably better than any other remaining team. UConn zips the ball around until they find the best shot. And Arizona? Well, Arizona just lets Aari McDonald go to work. As the lone non-No. 1 seed, that’s what No. 3 seed Arizona will need to do if they want to pull off some more upsets.

But while we already know that McDonald will be an impact player, she’s not alone in playing an outsized role on her team. Below are the five players who will determine who walks away from this weekend as national champions. 

Aari McDonald, Senior, Arizona

In a previous piece, I discussed how McDonald struggled against tournament teams during the regular season, shooting just 32.8% from the field. That didn’t last. Over the last two games, McDonald has put up 32 points per game and eight rebounds, while shooting 11/18 from three-point range. Her scoring has propelled the Wildcats to victory over No. 2 Texas A&M and No. 4 Indiana by a combined 28 points.

The problem? Across both of those games, only one other Arizona player has also scored in double digits. Without McDonald’s heroics, Arizona might not have enough additional firepower to keep up with the top teams. But if she continues blazing by defenders and hitting pull-up threes? Arizona could legitimately win this whole thing.

Ashten Prechtel, Sophomore, Stanford

With 4:30 left in the third quarter, Stanford trailed Louisville 45-37. They looked a bit lost, a bit cold – nothing like the number one overall seed that normally averages 78.9 points per game. Then things changed. But it wasn’t because of projected first round pick Kiana Williams. It wasn’t because of second leading-scorer Haley Jones, who put up a mere two points in the fourth quarter. It was Ashten Prechtel. Yes, Ashten Prechtel, the 6-foot-5 forward who averaged just 13 minutes and five points per game on the season. 

Prechtel brought a different dynamic to the floor. She misdirected shots in the lane with her long arms. She knocked down three after three after three over defenders. In the final 15 minutes of the game, Prechtel scored 16 points on 6-6 from the field and 3-3 from beyond the arc, sprinkling in four assists and two blocks as well. Stanford is already deep, with four players averaging double figures on the year. Add in a three-point shooting big who can defend the rim? How much tougher can a team get?

Aliyah Boston, Sophomore, South Carolina

The Gamecocks have won every NCAA tournament game handily, without All-American Aliyah Boston putting up gaudy numbers. Actually, to be quite honest, Boston has struggled offensively. Over the past two games, Boston has averaged just 9.5 points on 28.5% shooting. But that hasn’t necessarily translated to losses. In the eight games that Boston has scored in single digits this season, the Gamecocks are 7-1, with a differential of 22 points per game (their one loss came against NC State). 

The reason is simple. Boston affects the game in more ways than just scoring, especially on the defensive end. In their Elite Eight matchup against Texas, Boston held All-Big 12 First Team selection Charli Collier to just four points on 2-10 shooting.

Dawn Staley and the Gamecocks don’t need Boston to score to win. If she continues to protect the rim and lock up the opposing team’s big, it’s hard to see a team scoring enough points to beat the Gamecocks.   

Laeticia Amihere, Sophomore, South Carolina

No Aliyah Boston? No problem. Enter sophomore forward Laeticia Amihere, who dropped a season-high 15 points in the Gamecocks’ second round win over Georgia Tech. This has been a trend all season. Boston struggles? Amihere steps up. During Bostons’ eight single-digit scoring games, Amihere averaged 9.3 points and 7.4 rebounds per game, up from her season averages of 6.8 points and 5.4 rebounds. 

In the NCAA tournament, Amihere has played her best basketball of the season, notching three 20-plus minute games and three games with 10-plus points. That’s her best four game stretch since the beginning of the season. But the most impressive stat? In the Gamecocks’ most recent victory over Texas, Amihere blocked nine shots. Nine shots!

Christyn Williams, Junior, UConn

There were moments in UConn’s game against Iowa where the Hawkeyes looked like they might creep back into the game. But every time the Hawkeyes got closer, UConn scored again. And again. Or let me rephrase that: Christyn Williams scored again and again. 

Williams’ ability to heat up and score in bunches will go a long way in helping UConn capture its 12th championship. Against Iowa, that included 15 second quarter points for 28 points total. Against Baylor, that meant scoring 14 of her 18 points in the second half. As one of just two players on the UConn team with legitimate Final Four experience, UConn will need Williams to continue her hot streak.

Alyssa Naeher’s goalkeeper jersey sells out in less than three hours

uwnt goalie alyssa naeher wears jersey on the field with club team chicago red stars
USWNT star keeper Alyssa Naeher's new replica NWSL jersey was an instant success. (Daniel Bartel-USA TODAY Sports)

For the first time in the NWSL's 12-year history, fans can now buy their own goalkeeper jerseys. And while replica goalkeeper jerseys representing all 14 NWSL teams hit the market on Wednesday, some didn't stick around for long. 

Fans across women's soccer have long vocalized their discontent over the position's lack of availability on social media, often comparing the shortcoming to the widespread availability of men’s goalkeeper jerseys. And as the NWSL has grown, so has demand — and not just from those in the stands. 

"To have goalkeeper kits available for fans in the women’s game as they have been for so long in the men’s game is not only a long-awaited move in the right direction, it’s just good business," said Washington Spirit goalie Aubrey Kingsbury in an team press release. "I can’t wait to see fans representing me, Barnie [Barnhart], and Lyza in the stands at Audi!"

Business does, in fact, appear to be booming. Alyssa Naeher’s Chicago Red Stars kit sold out less than three hours after the league's announcement. Jerseys for other keepers like DiDi Haračić, Abby Smith, Michelle Betos, Katelyn Rowland, and Bella Bixby aren’t currently available via the Official NWSL Shop, though blank goalkeeper jerseys can be customized through some individual team sites. Jerseys start at $110 each.

"This should be the benchmark," said Spirit Chief Operations Officer Theresa McDonnell. "The expectation is that all players’ jerseys are available to fans. Keepers are inspiring leaders and mentors with their own unique fan base who want to represent them... I can’t wait to see them all over the city."

Simone Biles talks Tokyo Olympics fallout in new interview

gymnast simone biles on a balance beam
Biles' candid interview shed light on the gymnast's internal struggle. (Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Decorated gymnast Simone Biles took to the popular Call Her Daddy podcast this week to open up about her experience at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, revealing she thought she was going to be "banned from America" for her performance.

After Biles botched her vault routine due to a bout of the "twisties," she withdrew from the team final as well as the all-around final in order to focus on her mental health. She later reentered the competition to win bronze in the individual balance beam final.

In her interview with podcast host Alex Cooper, Biles admitted to feeling like she let the entire country down by failing her vault attempt.

"As soon as I landed I was like 'Oh, America hates me. The world is going to hate me. I can only see what they’re saying on Twitter right now,'" she recalled thinking. "I was like, ‘Holy s---, what are they gonna say about me?'"

"I thought I was going to be banned from America," she continued. "That’s what they tell you: Don’t come back if not gold. Gold or bust. Don’t come back."

Widely regarded as the greatest gymnast of all time, Biles has hinted at a desire to join her third Olympic team in Paris, though her participation won't be confirmed until after the gymnastics trials in late June. She holds over 30 medals from the Olympic Games and World Artistic Gymnastics Championships combined, and if qualified, would be a sure favorite heading into this summer’s games.

Caitlin Clark reportedly nearing $20 million+ Nike deal

Caitlin Clark #22 of the Indiana Fever poses for a portrait at Gainbridge Fieldhouse during her introductory press conference
WNBA-bound Caitlin Clark is said to be closing in on a monumental NIke deal. (Photo by Matt Kryger/NBAE via Getty Images)

Caitlin Clark is reportedly close to cementing a hefty endorsement deal with Nike.

The Athletic was the first to break the news Wednesday evening, commenting that the deal would be worth "eight figures" and include her own signature shoe. On Thursday afternoon, the publication tweeted that the deal would top $20 million, according to lead NBA Insider Shams Charania. Both Under Armour and Adidas are said to have also made sizable offers to the college phenom and expected future WNBA star.

The new agreement comes after Clark's previous Nike partnership ended with the conclusion of the college basketball season. She was one of five NCAA athletes to sign an NIL deal with the brand back in October, 2022. 

Considering Clark's overwhelming popularity and Nike's deep pockets, the signing's purported value doesn't exactly come as a shock. New York Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu’s deal with the brand is reportedly worth $24 million, while NBA rookie and No. 1 overall pick Victor Wembanyama’s deal is rumored to weigh in at $100 million. And in 2003, LeBron James famously earned $90 million off his own Nike deal. 

Clark’s star power continues to skyrocket, with the NCAA championship averaging 18.9 million viewers and the 2024 WNBA Draft more than doubling its previous viewership record. Following the draft, Fanatics stated that Clark's Indiana Fever jersey — which sold out within an hour — was the top seller for any draft night pick in the company’s history, with droves of unlucky fans now being forced to wait until August to get their hands on some official No. 22 gear.

In Wednesday's Indiana Fever introductory press conference, the unfailingly cool, calm, and collected Clark said that turning pro hasn’t made a huge impact on how she’s conducting her deals.

"If I’m being completely honest, I feel like it doesn’t change a ton from how I lived my life over the course of the last year," she said. "Sponsorships stay the same. The people around me, agents and whatnot, have been able to help me and guide me through the course of the last year. I don’t know if I would be in this moment if it wasn’t for a lot of them."

Star slugger Jocelyn Alo joins Athletes Unlimited AUX league

softball star jocelyn alo rounds the bases at an oklahoma sooners game
Former Oklahoma star Jocelyn Alo has signed with Athletes Unlimited. (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)

Former Oklahoma slugger Jocelyn Alo has signed on with Athletes Unlimited and will compete in the AU Pro Softball AUX this June.

The NCAA record holder in career home runs (122), total bases (761), and slugging percentage (.987), Alo was originally drafted by the league in 2022 but opted instead to join the newly debuted Women’s Professional Fastpitch

Alo currently plays for independent pro softball team Oklahoma City Spark, with team owner Tina Floyd reportedly on board with her recent AUX signing. AUX games are scheduled for June 10-25, while the Spark's season will kick off June 19th. Alo will play for both. 

Among those joining Alo on the AUX roster are former James Madison ace pitcher Odicci Alexander and former Wichita State standout middle infielder Sydney McKinney.

According to Alo, the decision to play in the Athletes Unlimited league was fueled by her desire to propel women's sports forward as well as provide more exposure to a sport that's given her "so many opportunities."

"Not only to challenge myself more, but just for the growth of the game," Alo said, explaining her reasoning to The Oklahoman. "I genuinely believe that professional softball can be a career for girls."

Joining AUX is also one more step in her plan toward representing Team USA at the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics.

"I’m constantly thinking about how can I do these little things right in these four years to prepare me for the biggest stage of softball," she told The Oklahoman. "I definitely want to play in the Olympics, for sure."

Alo further expressed enthusiasm in the hope that the rise of other women’s sports, like women’s basketball and the NWSL, will push softball’s professional viability even higher.

"We’re seeing the NWSL (National Women’s Soccer League) get their stuff going, I see the WNBA starting to get hot," she continued. "I feel like the softball community is like, 'All right, it’s our turn and it’s our turn to just demand more.'"

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