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When the Notre Dame women's basketball team boarded a larger-than-usual charter jet in South Bend for their flight to the Big East tournament in Hartford, 6'3" junior center Natalie Achonwa noted that the plane had three-seat rows, and that three of them were unclaimed. Knowing how much she and her fellow upperclassmen loved to stretch out and snooze, she grabbed the manifest and directed teammates to seats where they could have the whole row to themselves. "Ariel, 4A!" she barked. "Skylar, 4D! Kayla, 5A!"
Achonwa is the same way on the court: When she sees a void, she fills it, and she relishes the role of telling the Irish where to go and what to do. (Achonwa's nickname is Ace, but her teammates sometimes call her another three-letter word—Mom.) Her directorial instinct is just one thing that makes Achonwa invaluable on a team riding a 26-game winning streak into the NCAA tournament. "You probably appreciate her most when she's not on the floor," says Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw. "She's important everywhere; she's our best post defender, our best rebounder, our best talker. We're just better with her in the game."
A high-wattage star headlines each of the tournament's projected top four seeds. (The brackets, which can be found on SI.com, were announced after SI went to press.) The Irish have senior point guard Skylar Diggins, the gritty yet glamorous two-time Big East player of the year who counts 300,000 Twitter followers among her fans. Stanford depends on junior All-America forward Chiney Ogwumike, who delivered a staggering 22.4 points and 13.1 rebounds a game. Connecticut features 6-foot sophomore forward Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, whose 17.4 points and 50.0% three-point shooting led the team. And defending champion Baylor boasts 6'8" center Brittney Griner, the likely repeat national player of the year, who has too many scoring, rebounding, blocking and dunking records to detail here. But none of these teams, which are each expected to reach a third consecutive Final Four, will get to New Orleans without complementary players such as Achonwa, whose particular, sometimes peculiar, roles have proved to be indispensable.
Mikaela Ruef's inaugural career start for Stanford—against Baylor at the Rainbow Wahine Classic in Honolulu on Nov. 16—seemed like an especially cruel hazing ritual. Her first defensive assignment? Griner. Her first thought? "Are you kidding me?" says Ruef, a 6'3" senior forward.
Cardinal coach Tara VanDerveer's logic was simple: She didn't want Ogwumike or second-leading scorer Joslyn Tinkle getting into foul trouble. Ruef, who had averaged 1.6 points and 2.1 rebounds over her first two years and sat out the 2011--12 season with plantar fasciitis, had five expendable fouls to give. But to the surprise of everyone, including herself, Ruef outrebounded Griner 12--6 and helped hold one of the most dominant players the women's game has ever seen to just four points in the first half. Griner ended up with 22, but Stanford won 71--69, snapping the Lady Bears' winning streak at 44.
A management science and engineering major from Beavercreek, Ohio, Ruef has always been known for her eccentricities; she likes to challenge teammates to doughnut-eating and water-drinking contests and recently wrote a thank-you poem to her scholarship sponsor that was "so funny [and full of inside jokes] we couldn't send it," says VanDerveer. Now she has become a key cog. Ruef delivers the ball to the hot hand—"I'd much rather make the awesome pass that leads to the cool shot than take the shot," she says—grabs rebounds (her 6.6 average was second on the team), takes charges, sets screens and, with some reluctance, deploys her high-post jumper. "Things have not always gone Mikaela's way," says VanDerveer. "As a freshman, she was at the far end of the bench. Last year she was injured. A lot of kids would have given up or transferred. She has really demonstrated resiliency."
A less talented team than the ones that went to the last five Final Fours, the Cardinal surely wouldn't be a lock for a fourth straight No. 1 seed without Ruef. In three games in the Pac-12 tournament, she averaged 9.0 points, 5.7 rebounds and 4.0 assists, and she hit the shot heard 'round Seattle's KeyArena: After she made a well-defended turnaround fadeaway jumper that broke a 47--all tie with UCLA with less than a minute to go in the title game, Ruef unleashed her signature primal scream, Yeeesssss! "It's like she has just made this big kill for her tribe," says VanDerveer. "It energizes the whole team."
And it no doubt rattles—or at least baffles—opponents, another way Ruef adds value to the Cardinal cause.