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The five players who will decide the NCAA Final Four

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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.