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These 4 stars are poised for a deep run in March Madness. Here's who to watch

It's been a banner year for women's college basketball, with Caitlin Clark becoming a household name and viewership up 60% across national networks.

Now, with March Madness upon us, we've talked with some of the other star players poised for a deep run in the NCAA tournament.

Here's what they told us — and what you should look out for this tournament.

Hannah Hidalgo

  • School/Team: Notre Dame Fighting Irish
  • Position: Guard
  • Hannah Hidalgo celebrates after making a 3-point basket during an NCAA game on March 10.
    Chuck Burton / AP
    /
    AP
    Hannah Hidalgo celebrates after making a 3-point basket during an NCAA game on March 10.

    What's it like to have your dad be your basketball coach all through middle school and high school?

    For Hannah Hidalgo, this was a good thing – even if he didn't take it easy on her.

    "I think my dad was the hardest on me for sure, because he knew what I could accomplish," she said. "And he ... kind of saw greatness in me."

    Today, Hidalgo is the top player for second-seeded Notre Dame.

    The 5-foot-6-inch guard is the Division I basketball's third-leading scorer this season, and leads all players in steals — as a freshman.

    One of her inspirations is Aari McDonald, who now plays in the WNBA.

    "[McDonald] was a really small guard on the women's side," Hidalgo said. "Seeing how small she was and how she was able to score over girls that were like six-four, six-five, and just her ability to finish and get kind of leader at team, it was just like phenomenal."

    Hidalgo has never let her height keep her down. In high school, she was the New Jersey player of the year, and led U.S. junior national teams to two FIBA World Cup gold medals.

    With all the extra eyes on her now, she says her faith in God keeps her grounded amid criticism or praise in sports media. And for pre-game pump-up music, she opts for gospel.

    "We're always listening to gospel music," she said. "[It] gets our mind focused. And then of course after gospel, I'll call my parents and we pray together before every single game."

    Hidalgo says she remembers people looking down on women's basketball when she was younger. So she's happy to be seeing women finally getting mainstream recognition and also endorsement deals.

    "So I kind of see how now we're able to make money off of our name and how many millions of people [are] watching this," she said. "Seeing these younger kids who are coming up now ... it makes you really excited to see kind of what's for the future."

    JuJu Watkins

    School/Team: University of Southern California Trojans

    Position: Guard

    JuJu Watkins shoots during an NCAA game in the championship of the Pac-12 tournament on March 10.
    Ian Maule / AP
    /
    AP
    JuJu Watkins shoots during an NCAA game in the championship of the Pac-12 tournament on March 10.

    Juju Watkins has all the assets: she has the jump shot, the size and the speed.

    And the University of Southern California freshman guard also has star power.

    LeBron James has come out to see the USC women's team play. And USC legend Cheryl Miller has paid to see Watkins in action.

    "I'm always in shock," Watkins said. "I mean, Cheryl's the GOAT of women's basketball, so for her to really buy tickets, when she probably could have got them for free, is crazy."

    "I watched a lot of Candace Parker growing up and, of course, LeBron. With my generation, he's so influential. I try to model my game and my compassion after them."

    Watkins is from the Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts. Her great-grandfather established the Watts Labor Community Action Committee, an anti-poverty nonprofit, after the 1965 Watts Riots. And JuJu Watkins volunteered there in her childhood.

    That's all part of her decision to attend USC.

    "I think [at] USC there's rich history and I'm glad to be a part of that, so that was a big part of my decision-making process," she said. "And then just wanting to stay home and really grow my roots in L.A. and have that reach, I think that was important for me since I value my community so much and where I'm from."

    Watkins said she believes she's continuing to grow as a person and a player.

    "I was raised to really just pursue something to the fullest and really put a lot of time and energy into something I'm serious about. And I think basketball was that," she said.

    As a freshman, Watkins has already led her team to a PAC-12 championship while becoming the second-leading scorer in Division I. And she says her squad is peaking at the right time for the big dance.

    "We're finally, like, a true team now," she said. "I feel like everyone knows their roles, knows their spots and I think that as we continue to just stay level headed throughout everything, even coming off of a championship, we're not satisfied."

    Te-Hina Paopao

  • School/Team: University of South Carolina Gamecocks
  • Position: Guard
  • Te-Hina Paopao brings the ball up during an NCAA game on Feb. 22.
    Artie Walker Jr. / AP
    /
    AP
    Te-Hina Paopao brings the ball up during an NCAA game on Feb. 22.

    Te-Hina Paopao has a sweet tooth and a penchant for siestas.

    "I'm such, like, a boring person for pre-game rituals," she said. "I always got to get a nap in, no matter if it's a noon game, afternoon, or even a night game."

    Then, after the game — win or lose — it's time for dessert.

    Paopao grew up in Oceanside, California with brothers who played a whole bunch of sports. Eventually, when she jumped in, something clicked on the basketball court.

    And people noticed.

    "I was entering eighth grade when I was getting calls from colleges and talking to college coaches. And I knew right then and there that I could do something big with this," she said.

    Fast forward about eight years. For this season, Paopao transferred from Oregon to a powerhouse South Carolina program that went undefeated this season.

    A key part of their success has been Paopao's long-range shooting. At the end of the regular season, the senior had the highest three-point percentage in all of women's Division I basketball.

    But when it comes to inspiration, for Paopao it's not about accolades or fame — it's about her faith and her family's heritage.

    "I know God has been there through every step of the way, through this journey that I've been journeying through since, you know, a young child," she said. "Because I take so much pride in wanting to make my family proud of me and just wanting to inspire the younger generation, especially for Polynesian hoopers."

    Paopao isn't quite ready to go pro yet. Earlier this month, she announced she would return to South Carolina for a fifth season this fall.

    "It wasn't a hard decision at all," she said. "And I knew if I had another year under Coach [Dawn] Staley I could be a much more all-around player and just get that improvement that I came looking for. And it was just everything that I was looking for in a program."

    Alissa Pili

  • School/Team: University of Utah Utes
  • Position: Forward
  • Alissa Pili drives during an NCAA game on Feb. 16.
    Rick Bowmer / AP
    /
    AP
    Alissa Pili drives during an NCAA game on Feb. 16.

    Alissa Pili is the second oldest of nine kids who grew up in Alaska.

    "All of my siblings played sports growing up, so there was always something to do," she said. "We're always watching each other's games and I mean, in Alaska, it was super fun, it was never boring. Definitely a lot of fighting, but it was all love at the end of the day."

    Pili carried that competitive spirit through her adolescence, racking up more than a dozen state championships in volleyball, track and field, wrestling — and her main sport, basketball.

    Then she was recruited to play for the University of Southern California. But she admits she lost her edge, especially after a close family member died.

    So Pili — who is of Samoan and native Alaskan descent — went home. She recalibrated, and transferred to Utah.

    "When I got to Utah I think that I just got my groove back again," she said. "I really was just playing carefree, not thinking about it and that's kind of where I just took off."

    That's an understatement. The senior was named the PAC-12's player of the year last season. In last year's NCAA tournament, Utah lost a close game to the eventual national champion, Louisiana State University.

    "They won the championship and we were right there, and I think that was really just motivation that we compete with anybody when we play our best basketball," Pili said.

    She says she lives for those moments.

    "You got to have the attitude of you don't really care who you're going up against," she said. "I think playing a school that's supposed to be top dog or, like, a player who's the talk of the town, like, that kind of drives me to want to beat them more. I don't know, I gotta just show out."

    Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Jason Fuller
    [Copyright 2024 NPR]
    Kathryn Fink is a producer with NPR's All Things Considered.
    Mia Venkat
    Patrick Jarenwattananon
    [Copyright 2024 NPR]
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