Last fall, just before official practices began for college basketball, the NCAA announced that all winter sport student-athletes who competed during 2020-2021 would get an extra season of eligibility due to COVID-19.
The same benefit that had already been extended to fall and spring sport student-athletes was now being offered to winter sports as they endeavored to conduct a season of competition amidst the ongoing pandemic, where positive Covid tests, quarantine periods, and game cancelations would have otherwise wreaked havoc on a school’s ability to maximize and protect their student-athletes’ eligibility. In essence, no one was a senior last season, unless they wanted to be. While many women’s college hoops players chose not to take advantage of the NCAA’s offering and moved on to their careers or playing in the WNBA or overseas, a number of athletes decided to stay.
Now a number of Top 25 programs are set to benefit from an extra year of super senior talent, including last year’s national champion.
Anna Wilson is one of the top perimeter defenders in the country. In 2020-2021, she started all 33 games and earned Pac-12 Co-Defensive Player of the Year and Pac-12 All-Defensive Team honors for the eventual national champions, who enter 2021 ranked No. 3 in the country.
Stanford’s Anna Wilson has 10 PTS on 4-4 FG and 3 STL in the first halfHer brother, Russell Wilson, is in the @ncaawbb bubble to cheer her on ✊pic.twitter.com/EDGGh4UTg0— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) March 28, 2021
Stanford’s Anna Wilson has 10 PTS on 4-4 FG and 3 STL in the first halfHer brother, Russell Wilson, is in the @ncaawbb bubble to cheer her on ✊pic.twitter.com/EDGGh4UTg0
Known as a gritty and selfless teammate, the 24-year-old graduate student turned her focus to defense after a concussion and stress fractures in her freshman year left her feeling out of rhythm on the offensive end. Now head coach Tara VanDerveer can’t fathom doing a scout without her.
“Anna has basically forced my hand,” VanDerveer told USA TODAY. “I don’t have any choice: If there’s someone that we need to lock down, she has to be out there.”
A few of Wilson’s biggest potential defensive assignments are already on the calendar, including Maryland’s Ashley Owusu on November 27th and a Final Four re-match vs. South Carolina’s Zia Cooke on December 21st. Luckily for the winningest women’s basketball coach of all-time, she’ll have Wilson in her line-up for another year, not to mention a third senior day, as the Cardinal look to defend their national title.
NC State has three starters returning to the court via the NCAA bonus year. Raina Perez came to the Pack last year as a grad transfer from Cal State Fullerton, where she earned Big West Player of the Year honors in 2020. She started at point guard for NC State in all but two games last season and averaged 9.5 points and 4.7 assists per game for a program that ranked in the top five throughout much of the season.
Forward Kayla Jones is also back for what will be her fifth straight season on the court for NC State. As a starter for the past two full seasons, Jones has averaged 10.8 points, 7.1 rebounds, and 2.6 assists per game for the Pack.
RAINA PEREZ! ICE COLD! 🐺🧊#ACCWBB pic.twitter.com/6IjJV4CCND— ACC Digital Network (@theACCDN) March 7, 2021
RAINA PEREZ! ICE COLD! 🐺🧊#ACCWBB pic.twitter.com/6IjJV4CCND
The third returning super senior, Kai Crutchfield, led the team in steals, 3-point shooting percentage, and free throw percentage last season.
These three starters will be joined on the court by ESPN All-American Elissa Cunane and junior Jakia Brown-Turner, who averaged 13.5 points last year. Together, they have NC State ranked No. 5 in the AP’s preseason poll.
A valuable weapon on both ends of the court, Que Morrison received 2021 SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year and SEC All-Defensive Team honors while being the Bulldogs’ second leading scorer with 11.6 points per game. Morrison also led the team in assists, with 3.5 per game.
Now, she’s back for more alongside fellow super senior Jenna Staiti, who led the team in scoring (14.8) and rebounding (8.1) last season.
The 2021 @SEC Defensive Player of the Year, Que Morrison, and the SEC's blocked shots leader for 2020-21, Jenna Staiti, have each earned a spot on the Preseason All-SEC Second Team! #BringYourBest | #GoDawgs pic.twitter.com/76VzVG0c5Z— Georgia Basketball 🏀🐶 (@UGA_WBB) October 26, 2021
The 2021 @SEC Defensive Player of the Year, Que Morrison, and the SEC's blocked shots leader for 2020-21, Jenna Staiti, have each earned a spot on the Preseason All-SEC Second Team! #BringYourBest | #GoDawgs pic.twitter.com/76VzVG0c5Z
Georgia went 21-7 last year, rounding out the top ten in the AP end-of-year rankings. They enter this season ranked No. 26. Expect Morrision and Staiti to lead them back into the Top 25.
At Texas A&M, guard Kayla Wells, who owns the school’s all-time career 3-point field goal percentage record (36.9%) is returning for her extra year.
Ohio State’s Braxtin Miller will continue to bring veteran leadership to the court coming off a year where she averaged 11.5 points per game and was second on the team in steals and assists.
Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year Brice Chalip is returning to Missouri State after averaging 13.3 points, 4.9 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 2.2 steals per game last season.
Kim Mulkey’s inaugural year at LSU will be boosted by the return of Khayla Pointer, who led the team last year in scoring, steals, and assists.
And Bethy Mununga, who hails from Belgium and came up through the junior college ranks, will use her bonus year by returning to South Florida, where she earned ACC All-Conference honors and averaged 9.6 points and 12.9 (!) rebounds last season.
Though Covid-19 has been a “gift that keeps on giving” in the sardonic sense of the phrase, one positive for college sports fans is the extended collegiate careers its provided to many deserving athletes. The effect will continue to ripple into seasons ahead as all student-athletes, not just seniors, who played during the designated season were granted the extra year.
While their track record of supporting and promoting the women’s basketball tournament continues to receive scrutiny, it’s nice to see an example of the NCAA doing the right thing for its players.