In the highest poll of the season, Texas A&M sits atop the country this week for the first time this season. The Aggies are now 9-0 vs ranked opponents this season and won the SEC regular-season championship after defeating South Carolina on Sunday. Pac-12 Champion Stanford drops to two overall with NC State, UConn, and South Carolina rounding out the top five.
ACC regular-season champion Louisville is six this week, followed by high-scoring Maryland at seven, red-hot Baylor sits at eight, and UCLA and Indiana rank nine and ten, respectively.
The SEC lands three more teams in the top 15 this week: Tennessee sits at 11, Arkansas 13, and Georgia 15. Arizona falls to 12 this week after an overtime loss to rival Arizona State, and Michigan also slides into the poll at 14 this week.
Rhyne Howard and the Kentucky Wildcats move up to 16, West Virginia remains at 17, Oregon drops to 18, and South Dakota State and Gonzaga rise to 19 and 20 respectively.
The top 25 is rounded out with Missouri State at 21, Rutgers at 22, Ohio State falling to 23, South Florida dropping to 24, and a streaky Iowa team coming back into the poll at 25.
Marquette, Florida Gulf Coast, Oklahoma State, Iowa State, Alabama, Georgia Tech, Northwestern, and Texas all received votes this week.
Arella Guirantes passed up the 2020 WNBA draft to return to Rutgers as a fifth-year senior. This season the 5-11 guard leads the surging Scarlet Knights in points (21.4 ppg, third in the Big Ten), assists (5.4 apg, fourth in the conference), blocks (2.1 bpg, third in conference), rebounds (6.1) and minutes (36.7 mpg, first in conference). She is second to teammate Takia Mack for steals (2.2 spg), which ranks fourth in the Big Ten.
Guirantes is on watch lists for the Naismith Player of the Year, the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year, the Ann Myers Drysdale Shooting Guard of the Year, and she is a finalist for the Senior CLASS Award.
She grew up in Belmont, Long Island, New York. Both of Guirantes’ parents were local school basketball coaches, but were careful not to push her into the sport. Instead, it was she who pressed her dad to let her practice with the boys team when she was still in grammar school. He didn’t do so, but he and her mother did start to work with her on basketball skills. She so often pleaded with them add more drills and harder work to her training, that her father realized that he needed to educate himself to help his daughter. He ended up being a professional personal trainer, and his daughter a high school star.
After averaging 35.4 points and 17 rebounds as a senior for Belmont High, Guirantes, then 17, herself made the decision to spend a post-graduate year at IMG Academy in Florida, then accepted a scholarship to Texas Tech.
Although she played 30 minutes a game as a freshman and was Tech’s second-leading scorer, she was not happy there, and transferred to Rutgers in 2017, sitting out a year before becoming a mainstay of an improving Scarlet Knight team.
[The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity. Some brackets indicate reconstructed wording that was lost when our Zoom call cut out several times.]
Why did you decide to transfer from Tech to Rutgers? You played almost 30 minutes a game, were the second leading scorer at Tech. It’s a good conference, with Baylor, Texas, Iowa State, West Virginia.
When I went to Texas Tech, what I had to adjust to was the style of play. It is more an inside-out game. The Big 12 was just a really big league at the time. And just the style play was a little bit more fundamental, you know I’m used to, you know, quick style play. Up-north style basketball. (Smiling).
You were talking about the different style play.
Yeah, the different style play was probably the major adjustment for me. Also I just didn’t really give Texas a chance, personally. It’s hard come from New York all the way to Texas. So I was, I was definitely in a culture shock. That was probably one of the main reasons.
You know, I wanted to be closer to home to develop more. Rutgers’ style of play really fit my style of play growing up. And I was going to be able to develop a little bit more here. And I felt like the conference also was a major part of my decision. Because the Big Ten, they have a lot of guards come out this conference and they’re known for their IQ, they’re known for just being really top tier guards that last in the league. So that pretty much was why I made the decision to make the switch.
I read that when you were in fifth grade you set the goal of playing in WNBA. At that point, who in the league were you looking up to as kind of your goal player?
I was looking up to Candace Parker. I was a big Tennessee fan, back in the day; big Pat Summitt fan. So I really wanted to play for someone who resembled Pat because I obviously didn’t get the chance because she ended up retiring. I hadn’t even gotten to the college circuit. So Candace Parker definitely. Cappie [Pondexter].
I grew up going to almost every Liberty game. Like every other weekend, I was going to the games, because I was just surrounded by Liberty players too. I grew up 15 minutes away from Sue Wicks. My mom played with Sue Wicks in high school, at Center Moriches. And, yeah, I was surrounded by that environment so we always went to Liberty games, Bria Hartley, I don’t think she was in the WNBA at the time but she was just someone who I knew was going, and really high hopes. I was looking at her too because she lived about 20 minutes away from me so it was, it was a bunch of people I looked up to. But, Cappie and Candace were definitely the main two.
And then last season you were eligible. And you chose not to go into the draft even though they were projecting you as maybe a top five. Tell me about that decision, why you made it, and are you happy about it?
OK. Give me a second. OK? [Gets up and goes off camera].
So I have this paper right here. I keep on my wall. You see I write a lot on my wall. Yep. But, yeah, that decision was really overwhelming because I you know I have a hard time making decisions on what I want to eat at night. [Laughing] So making a decision like that, that can, you know, change the course of my life and you know be a huge life decision. It was it was really tough on me. And I had a lot of outside forces trying to persuade me one way, or trying to convince me to go the other way. And I had to kind of like block out all those forces and really tune into what I wanted, what made me happy. What was going to be the best for me.
And I still came to the conclusion: I still don’t know. So I look towards God honestly, and that day, I opened up my Bible and I literally just picked the first thing that spoke to me and it’s crazy, but I landed on Thessalonians 3:12. And verse three. And it said [reading, paraphrasing] ‘we didn’t want any of you to be shaken by these problems. You know very well we were meant to go through this. In fact, we were with you, we were predicting that we were going to face problems, exactly like what happened. As you know this, we sent Timothy to find your faithfulness and it couldn’t stand anymore. I was worried the tempter might have tempted you and that our work would have been waste of time.’
And really what that spoke to me it was just saying, ‘don’t rush into something just because it’s tempting.’ And, you know, it’s easy because you know you’re hyped because like this is a childhood dream that’s about to come true. And is literally right in front of you.
But do you have the patience and the faithfulness to trust God, to know he has something bigger. And that was really hard to, you know, get out of the driver’s seat and just let God handle that and I just, I read that verse and I ran with it One, because it was the only decision that came that made sense to me at the time, but two, because I really believe highly in faith.
So, since that time, certainly your senior year – as weird as it’s been – you have taken another step in terms of your offensive efficiency. So at this point, do you think that decision was worth it?
Absolutely. Because of I’ve really got a lot of people pouring into me constantly. And just, you know, showing me the ropes. I was working out with a bunch of trainers this year who just added other elements to my game. Let me see it from a different perspective. And I think that development is where, you don’t just make it to the league, or you don’t just make it to the WNBA, that’s where, you know, stability comes and, you know, time that you stay in the WNBA. So, those adjustments that I made this summer. I definitely feel is worth it.
Tell me a little bit more about what you were focusing on during the summer. What the adjustments were that you felt you needed most, for that stability once you get into the league.
So those adjustments. It was more like adding, what’s the word? horizontal? I guess horizontally. I don’t know another word for that, on top of my head, but moving, horizontally, with my movements. Because I’m very good going vertically: north, south. Very good going north to south as fast as I want efficiently. But when people figure that out, you got to stop. You have to find different ways and different angles. So it was more like setting myself up horizontally and moving from side to side better.
Maybe the word is ‘laterally’ you’re trying for?
Thank you! Laterally. Thank you. Yeah, and slowing the game down. Taking the extra second to make a read. With that extra second I have to get more space with my movements.
Also, just really form and technique, because you can’t go wrong with that, but this year, it was really about just showing the more versatility of my game: setting my teammates up a lot more; showing that I am a playmaker, not just a scorer. I’m more of a playmaker, and I see passes ahead. And I could set and make people better on my team.
So that you did on your own during the summer or were you at school. I mean, almost nobody was at school right?
Yeah, we didn’t get to school ’til September, and I came a little bit later because I was still working out with Ralph. He’s a trainer in Long Island, I was working out with my dad you know he’s been my trainer forever. And I started working out with [another trainer]. I started working with him towards the middle of the summer. We worked out faithfully. Almost every day I was driving to Yonkers, New York at five in the morning to work out with him and leave at like 12 in the afternoon. So it was really a prosperous summer.
You’re known for the now at least for the versatility of your game: you have a pull up jumper; you shoot threes; you drive to the hoop. Is there any part of that play that you’re more comfortable with than others?
I wouldn’t say any part of my game I’m more comfortable with. I like being aggressive and that’s just what I’m known for: being aggressive and just take what the defense gives me in the game. That’s literally what I’ve been taught for my whole career: just take what the defense gives you. Don’t try to force anything. And the defense is always going to give up something. So it’s just a matter of finding out what that is, during the game.
Sometimes you have an off game, but where you’re messing up a little bit of the reads and stuff and you might not might not feel right. But it’s always been about just being comfortable with everything. That’s why when I’m shooting and I’m working out with my dad we tried to have create so many reps where we’re not uncomfortable with certain aspects of my game. We focused a lot on the three this offseason too, and just making sure that is as sharp as my mid-range. But I do love the mid-range. I would say that’s my favorite aspect of the game, mid-range, for sure.
At this stage, what do you think needs the most improvement?
I would say just – how do I word this? – creating less contact or drawing less contact. When I’m going, not 100, but I’m being really aggressive, creating less contact and learning how to get space without creating contact all the time. So, like I said, those lateral movements, I was introduced to a new style of play playing laterally this summer, and I still haven’t fully tapped into it yet. You know, working on it during the season is really hard. And it’s not going to come in one night or one game, so everything I’ve worked on over the summer hasn’t fully tapped in into my game yet, it’s still evolving. But definitely, you know, trying to get space without contacting. Eliminating my contact during the game.
Rutgers missed an entire month of games, due to COVID. How did being off for a month after playing five or six games affect you and how did the team cope with not being able to compete: just practice and class, you know.
Yeah, it was hard. It kind of felt like summer to us. It was definitely harder because no one wants to practice for hours every day to not play. We did a lot of conditioning. Almost every day. And we, we had a lot of uncomfortable conversations and uncomfortable days where we just we dreaded coming, but it was just what we needed. I think all of us were looking past the day and past our emotions. Past how we felt about the situation. And we were looking on moving forward, instead of being stuck on ‘what could have happened? What could we have done better?’
And we looked forward to, ‘how do we still make the best out of this season, how do we still get better every single day, and continue to grow and make this season worth it?’ Because it can be special. So I think all of us had a forward mindset. And that’s what just, you know, helped us get out of that whole 30 day slump.
You’re a fifth-year senior on a relatively young team. How do you express your leadership on the team?
I would say, I had to turn into less of, not less of an action leader, but I was not the type of person to talk all the time. I’d rather do it and you watch it, and then see how I am, take it from there. But I’ve become more of a vocal leader and kind of like a little [more vocal with my teammates.]
And I had to become like a small coach on the court. It was definitely different from me, stepping into that role. Because when I’m in basketball mode, I don’t really like to talk, I just like to play. So, but that was exactly why I came back, so I can give back. You know everything I received at Rutgers, all the growth I’ve received, just a bunch of people pouring into me. Some way I had to pour that back out. And that’s one of the reasons why I came back. Now I’m seeing it unfold before my eyes you know that it is really, you know, it’s really bigger than me and it’s about the generations to come.
It says in your bio that you played against Cappie Pondexter. How did that come about, and what was the play like?
[She came to Rutgers] during the summer, okay, and she practiced with us. And we were doing a little scrimmage up and down and I got to guard her. There was one play, and I was so excited I’m like ‘yeah, I’m gonna get a stop.’ And she, what I remember is that what she did, she took her time, is jab jab, and I didn’t bite for it. [So she started over, and did a cross-dribble and another jab.] That’s exactly how she got her space on that. She cross jab-stepped, then she tried to get it off as soon as I retreated. She stepped back and I still contested the shot. Shot went in. And that’s when I realized I was like, ‘yes, this, this is the moment I’ve been dreaming of as a kid, and then ultimately I was like, ‘oh yeah I got to get back on offense,’ It was just like, [the best experience].
You’re active in the Big Ten Anti-Racism Coalition, which I think is all students, yes?
Yes. OK. And some coaches do come up to meetings.
Tell me a little bit about how you got involved, and what you’re doing there?
Well, [the president of the Big Ten suggested the coalition], and my coaches asked if I wanted to join to use my voice. And they said that Gio [Baker, men’s basketball] is going and it would be really important. So when I joined the first meeting, I was kinda, like, really, how is this going to help what what’s going on? And when we joined [together, I saw that it allowed players] to really, you know, share how they’re feeling and have a voice. Also, it wasn’t just, just like a big group just sharing their feelings. We talked about resolutions, and how we can make a difference. You know we set up really just a lot of what’s [the conference going to do, and made] plans for, for the for the future. I know, like when a couple Wisconsin players were on the call they were talking about what exactly happened on their campus, how could the president help them? We just really talked about a bunch of stuff like that and with the [message on the] shirts. Now, what statements were we going to make over the season and all that stuff. I really thought it was helpful [to organize so we could] come on as a whole conference and come on, unified rather than everybody doing their own individual things. So I think the President of the Big Ten really did a good job, you know, getting us all together.
What other things in your life do you most enjoy?
I really enjoy pretty much anything I put my mind to. Everybody knows me to be a person that just, you know, is willing to just step into any door and be adventurous. Lately, I’ve been very active in skating on my off time as much as I can. I picked up that hobby over the summer, and my sister we’ve been roller skating ever since. [And people know I’ve been] playing saxophone like all my life. So, I do a lot to separate and take my mind off basketball. But ultimately I feel like all the time it helps with basketball at the same time. When you really just are focused on a goal, like everything you do you find a way to connect it to basketball and towards your end goal. So I just, I know everything off the court helps me. Like skating helps with legs. It helps with balance. All that stuff. You wouldn’t think about it like that, but that’s how I think about it so it’s like when I was skating. I’m not only having fun but I’m also really, you know, becoming a better basketball player,
I get it. After that long layoff, you guys come back on Feb. 7. You’ve won six in a row since then. What changed in the team that led to that, winning streak?
I would just say the chemistry. That’s it. The skill was always there. We have talented players, we all we all knew that coming in to the season. We knew the potential we had. The chemistry wasn’t there because we never had that time to build it. So as we jumped into the season, you know not [having any time to figure out] ‘how can I talk to this person on the court that she won’t get mad and take it personal?’ So, that was missing. And that whole 30-day period, that’s when all the groundwork, and the foundation was built, so that we can actually move forward because we were just playing off no foundation at all.
Okay, so the 30 days kind of helped. Given the way this whole season came down,
It definitely was . . . . I do not regret not having those 30 days.
Of course I would have loved to play during my senior year. Those what, eight games that we missed. But the outcome of missing those 30 days is winning, you know, and then winning while having fun. That was better than [playing all those games and still being] discombobulated.
I first interviewed coach Stringer before you were born, at the 1996 Big East Conference which actually was held at Rutgers. Conference Tournament. She’s a unique personality, to say the least. What’s your relationship with her like?
Coach Stringer is really like a mother figure to me. She really has kind of just like shaped me into this, this woman that I am. It’s crazy, like I would picture myself [one way, and then, talking to her, it opens things up. You go to her] and, you know, have a conversation, really be transparent during the conversation, and just be myself like she’s really helped me branch out and develop myself on and off the court. She’s pushed me on the court.
And like I said before I was a huge [Pat Summit fan]. And just not being able to have the chance to play for Pat, I was like, ‘who coaches like Pat? Who coaches like Pat?’ When I was making the decision again to, you know, go to this schools, I said ‘Who coaches like Pat? Coach Stringer. I was like, ‘Duh!’
[Coach is engaged, and working to reach a high standard at] all times, and she’s not going to stop until you reach that standard, and I needed someone in my corner like that. Our relationship is really just, it’s, it’s so good now to the point where I can just go to coach and be like, alright, ‘How, how am I doing? What can I do better?’ She’ll ask me the same thing: ‘What do you think you can do better? What can you bring more?’
You know . . . seeing her, I never thought I would have a relationship like that with a coach ’cause as I didn’t before, and I kind of always was on my own. And you know, having a full partnership with the coaches is really, it’s really dope! It just helps the program out tremendously. It really does.
Tell us something that people don’t know about you, that’s kind of one of those hidden secrets?
Hidden secret about, about Arella that’s interesting. That’s a good thing.
It’s a good thing. Well, people may not know, I was a World Championship Double Dutcher.
All right, that’s great! When was that?
Third, fourth grade? I’ve been doing Double Dutch since probably like before I even played basketball.
Do you still do it? Do you still do it for fun?
Oh yeah, of course, I still have the ropes, I have the ropes with me. Yeah, all the time. Yeah, I used to do everything: breakdance moves, like flips, all that stuff.
College Station, Texas – After a dominating season in which they lost only once, No. 3 Texas A&M erased any doubt Sunday as they beat No. 5 South Carolina, 65-57, to claim the first SEC regular-season title in program history.
Aaliyah Wilson lead four in double figures with 17 points, while N’dea Jones chipped in 16 points and 14 rebounds for the Aggies’ tenth straight victory. The effort capped off a season that began with what coach Gary Blair called underestimation, after the departure of top scorer and first-round WNBA draft pick Chennedy Carter.
“We had a great player…that everybody had to scheme for,” he said. “When this year started, nobody gave us enough credit as a team that you had to scheme for.”
Blair has called this season’s squad, 22-1 overall and 13-1 in the SEC, one of the most fun and cohesive that he has coached. He said that without one dominant player, they have played team basketball.
“We checked the egos at the door, every one of us, because of the competition we had to face,” he said.
Wilson, Jones, Kayla Wells and Ciera Johnson have all averaged double-figure scoring this year, with point guard Jordan Nixon and reserve guard Destiny Pitts close behind. A&M was tabbed to finish third in conference, and began the year ranked No. 13. They have beat nine ranked opponents in 23 games, including the deciding matchup against the Gamecocks.
“Everybody has something they’re good at, and can do,” Wilson said. “No team can cut our head off.”
South Carolina trailed by as many as 14 points in the fourth quarter of the season finale before they made a push and cut the lead to three, on an Aaliyah Boston three-pointer with three minutes to go. Wilson’s bucket at the 90 second mark gave the Aggies a 62-57 lead, and Wells made a pair of free throws with 12 seconds left to seal the win.
Destanni Henderson and Zia Cooke each put up 15 points for the Gamecocks, who won both the regular-season and SEC Tournament titles last season. Coach Dawn Staley credited their opponents.
“I love our effort and I love our energy. We just ran out of gas and didn’t have enough in the tank today,” she said.
A&M moved up in the rankings slowly throughout the year, as they carved out win after win while carefully following COVID protocols. They did not have to suspend play or cancel games due to the pandemic, and when two opponents had to call off matchups, Blair filled the calendar with replacement teams to boost their resume. He noted that South Carolina did the same thing.
“We’ve been doing it with leadership – six seniors and five who are in grad school,” he said.
Though Blair, in his 18th season with the Aggies, won a National Championship in 2011 and an SEC Tournament in 2013, the regular-season title had eluded him.
“We really wanted this,” he said. “The (SEC) Tournament championship is great, but the body of work you have to do in the regular season is something.”
Wilson said athletes were careful to not think too far ahead, even as their momentum grew.
“It’s really easy to get caught up in what people have and have not done,” she said. “We watch each other every day and….we did a good job of reminding each other not to get complacent, and to take one day at a time.”
“We find a way. Sometimes it’s not pretty, but we find a way. We keep having each other’s backs.”
Blair considers the SEC Tournament, which begins Wednesday, a second season, and the NCAA Tournament, a third season. He said that with so many ranked teams in the conference, A&M will continue their one-day-at-a-time approach.
“We’re only as good as our next game,” he said. “We’re not good enough to look past anybody.”
UCLA senior forward Michaela Onyenwere, a projected first-round WNBA draft pick, said Wednesday she hadn’t yet decided whether or not she would return for one more year as a Bruin.
Prior to the 2020-2021 season, the NCAA granted those playing an extra year of eligibility due to the limitations imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Onyenwere, who ranks fourth in the Pac-12 in scoring and third in rebounding, has said she was weighing whether to stay in Westwood an additional year. With the WNBA draft just six weeks away, she said she didn’t think she’d return to UCLA, but she couldn’t say for sure.
Coach Cori Close said she supports Onyenwere’s decision, whatever it is.
“Michaela has got the freedom to make that decision when it’s appropriate for her,” Close said.
Two who will be honored on senior night tomorrow are Lauryn Miller and Lindsey Corsaro. Miller, a Missouri native, has evolved into a starter with a steadying presence on court and a big-sisterly influence off of it. Corsaro, from Indiana, missed her first two season with the Bruins with injuries. A redshirt junior, she could have two more years at UCLA, but is choosing to move on.
“She’s given us five amazing years, so we’re going to honor her as a senior,” Close said.
Natalie Chou, a redshirt senior transfer from Baylor, has “unequivocally” said she will use her additional eligibility year in 2021-2022, according to Close. Freshman Emily Bessoir and early enrollee Dominique Darius will be freshmen again next season. Whether or not others on the roster, including two who opted out, will take another year remains to be seen.
“We’ve had zero conversations about that with the players in between (the seniors and freshmen),” Close said.