Breanna Stewart of UConn has the gaudiest credentials in the field, but that doesn't mean she matters most in deciding who wins the title—even on her own team
BAYLOR COACH Kim Mulkey isn't sure what to expect in this year's NCAA women's tournament. Ditto for Louisville's Jeff Walz. Yes, Connecticut is the favorite, but who knows which teams will meet the Huskies in the Final Four? "Wide open," Walz says. "An exciting time in women's basketball," Mulkey adds.
Think UConn is the only team stacked with skilled players? Think again. Speedy point guard Moriah Jefferson makes Huskies games must-see TV, but other talents, and other teams, are worthy of attention too. This year's national player of the year will be a junior, but it's more likely to be Notre Dame shooting guard Jewell Loyd than Connecticut forward Breanna Stewart. South Carolina junior point guard Tiffany Mitchell has already taken the No. 3--ranked Gamecocks higher in the polls than they've ever been; now she could lead them to their first Final Four. Motivated by an injured teammate, Tennessee senior forward Cierra Burdick is on a mission to get the Lady Vols back to the Final Four. And undersized (5'11") sophomore forward Nina Davis wasn't heavily recruited, but she's been practically a double double machine at Baylor.
All five players are capable of taking their teams deep into the tournament. "There have been enough national championships won in the last 10 years by programs nobody thought could do it that we're starting to understand if teams get on a roll, anything can happen," Mulkey says. As the talent level around the country continues to rise, more and more brackets are likely to go bust. But why wait for the future?
WITH RESPECT to Stewart, the reigning national player of the year, the Huskies can't win another title without a significant contribution from the 5'7" Jefferson, who might be just as quick with the ball as without it. "Her speed and acceleration—that's a huge part of what we do," says sophomore forward Morgan Tuck, who calls Jefferson the "unsung hero" of the team. "She's so comfortable, even going really fast." Stewart, the leading scorer (17.4 points per game) and rebounder (7.3), creates matchup problems not just because of her height (6'4") and wingspan (7'1") but also because she's just as effective under the basket as she is from the perimeter. And Jefferson is the Huskies' motor. She knows exactly how to find Stewart, pushing the tempo and daring defenders to keep up with her.
In her first two years at UConn, Jefferson was used primarily to cause havoc and create turnovers as a defender. Now, in addition to her team-high 88 steals, her 159 assists also lead the Huskies. She outraces opponents in the open floor on her way to layups and can stop and pop a shot if needed, shooting 58.1% from the field. (That percentage would rank eighth nationally, but players must hit five field goals per game to qualify; Jefferson makes 4.8.)
Huskies coach Geno Auriemma puts extra pressure on his upperclassmen, particularly his point guards. Veterans must accept responsibility for everything that happens on the court; he used to tell superstar Sue Bird that any turnovers were her fault, even if she didn't touch the ball in the possession. Tuck says Jefferson embraces that pressure, playing her best basketball in the biggest games. During UConn's run to the 2014 title, Jefferson had 25 assists and 18 steals while committing just seven turnovers in six tournament games. Though she can get lost on a roster with five double-digit scorers, every one of the Huskies understands Jefferson's importance. "We don't play the same when she's not on the floor," Tuck says. "If Mo went to another school, she's all anyone would talk about 24/7."
At Notre Dame, all the talk is about the 5'10" Loyd, who has scored in double figures in 75 of her last 76 games. Her play is all the more remarkable considering how much the Irish lost to graduation last spring: All-Americas Kayla McBride and Natalie Achonwa took scoring pressure off Loyd. With defenses designed to stop her this season, Loyd has increased her point production (from 18.6 a game to 20.5) and become better at sharing the ball (102 assists, up from 79). Against teams ranked in the Top 25 this season, Loyd averaged 24.9 points. "Phenomenal," says Walz of the junior guard who scored 20 points and grabbed seven rebounds against Louisville on Feb. 23. "She has more responsibility this year and can still get a shot whenever she wants."
It helps that Loyd has the perfect running mate in sophomore Lindsay Allen. The pair has a near-telepathic connection in the open floor. Early in the second half against a feisty North Carolina team on Jan. 15, Loyd stole the ball from Tar Heels guard Danielle Butts and passed it to Allen, who then fed it right back to Loyd for a jumper. That basket put the Irish ahead 48--46, and they went on to win 89--79.
That's a move that another slick-shooting guard—Mitchell—can appreciate. The two-time SEC player of the year is often called a female version of Dwyane Wade. In addition to averaging 14.4 points, Mitchell also came up with a team-high 60 steals for the Gamecocks, who spent 12 weeks ranked at No. 1 this season and held opponents to just 52.6 points per game, eighth best in the country.
Mitchell grew up idolizing her coach, Dawn Staley, who played professionally until 2006. Earlier this month Mitchell was named a finalist for an award named in honor of her coach, which recognizes, among other typical guard skills, the will to win—something she definitely shares with the ultracompetitive Staley.
South Carolina's offense works best when Mitchell gets in a rhythm early, but Staley has preached all season that the Gamecocks can't expect Mitchell to be Superwoman every night. If she struggles, South Carolina has a plethora of options down low with 6'5" A'ja Wilson and 6'4" Alaina Coates. Still, tough tournament games bring out the best of Mitchell's abilities. She poured in a team-high 17 points in a 62--46 victory over Tennessee on March 8 for the program's first SEC championship. And in a second-round NCAA tournament game against Oregon State in 2014, Mitchell scored all 20 of her points in the second half as the Gamecocks pulled away to earn their second trip to the Sweet 16 in three years.
A TRIP TO Tampa is on Burdick's to-do list. Tennessee hasn't been to the Final Four since 2008, an eternity for a program that won eight titles under former coach Pat Summitt. Burdick, who can stretch the floor with her ability to shoot outside 15 feet and take defenders off the dribble, is well aware of the drought. She also knows almost everyone wrote off the Lady Vols after All-America candidate Izzy Harrison tore her right ACL on Feb. 15. Burdick now writes Harrison's number 20 on her hands and shoes before every game and welcomes the added pressure. "People are basically calling us scrubs without Izzy," Burdick says. "But you know what, it's fuel to the fire. Keep saying it." Before Harrison's injury Burdick was averaging 10.2 points and 6.8 rebounds; since then she's contributed 13.4 and 8.4. It's an impressive turnaround from her first five games of the season, in which she shot 12 for 47 from the field. She has also set career highs in steals (with four against Georgia on Feb. 26) and assists (seven, in the regular-season finale against Vanderbilt).
If Burdick's trying to learn how to prove doubters wrong, she could take notes from Baylor's Davis, whom Mulkey calls "the best kind of surprise." Certainly Davis has caught opponents off guard: It's not often that an unheralded freshman dominates UConn on the boards, but Davis had 17 rebounds last season in a 66--55 loss to the Huskies.
"Most unique player I've ever coached," Mulkey says of Davis, who led Baylor to a fifth-consecutive Big 12 tournament championship with a 75--64 win over Texas on March 9. "She's got an ugly shot, but she's a scorer. She's undersized, but she tracks down offensive rebounds. You won't believe how good she is." Nothing about Davis's game is pretty, except for her 58.6 field goal percentage, which ranks sixth in the country. She isn't strong enough to outmuscle defenders, so she uses her tremendous body control to get into the paint and average 21.1 points. Davis crashes the boards too, snatching 8.4 rebounds per game, almost half of them offensive. She turns most of those into easy putbacks and doesn't waste many shots—against Oklahoma State in the Big 12 semifinals she had 29 points (on 12-for-17 shooting) in just 25 minutes.
It helps to have an elite distributor on your side: Junior point guard Niya Johnson hands out a nation-best 8.6 assists per game. Davis is one of her favorite targets, especially in transition, when she can beat most bigger post defenders down the floor. "She's just always around the basketball," Mulkey says. "You have to know where she is all the time."
That holds true for all of these players, who will be tracked by opponents as well as fans as the 2014 tournament marches toward Tampa.