Freshmen JuJu Watkins, Hannah Hidalgo top AP women’s All-America team

Watkins and Hidalgo — of USC and Notre Dame, respectively — are only the fourth and fifth freshmen to make the AP team since it began in 1994-95.

Caitlin Clark has been a mainstay on The Associated Press All-America team the past few seasons.

The NCAA’s all-time scoring leader from Iowa was honored for the third straight year Wednesday, becoming the 11th player to earn the distinction three times. She was a unanimous choice from the 35-member national media panel that chooses the AP Top 25 each week.

Clark was joined on the first team by Stanford’s Cameron Brink, UConn’s Paige Bueckers and freshmen JuJu Watkins of USC and Hannah Hidalgo of Notre Dame. They are only the fourth and fifth freshmen to make the AP team since it began in 1994-95, joining Oklahoma’s Courtney Paris, UConn’s Maya Moore and Bueckers.

“We’ve had a front row seat to JuJu, but what Hannah’s done is unbelievable,” USC coach Lindsay Gottlieb said. “Coach Niele (Ivey) has done an incredible job.”

Clark joins a select group with her third first-team honor: South Carolina’s A’ja Wilson and Aliyah Boston, Baylor’s Brittney Griner, Tennessee’s Chamique Holdsclaw, Duke’s Alana Beard, Paris, Oregon’s Sabrina Ionescu, Kentucky’s Rhyne Howard and UConn’s Breanna Stewart and Moore. Paris and Moore did it four times.

Clark, who earned second-team honors as a freshman, led the nation in scoring averaging 31.9 points per game as well as being tops in assists with 8.9. The Iowa native became the first Division I player to have consecutive 1,000-point seasons and to also top 3,000 points and 1,000 assists for her career.

“That is mind-boggling when you think about it,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. “I mean, everybody’s defensive plan is to stop her, and nobody’s been able to figure out really how to do it. She’s faced every kind of defense. She really knows how to pick them apart.”

Watkins took the country by storm as a freshman. She has already scored 810 points, which is fourth most for a freshman all-time. She averaged 27 points, which was second behind Clark and added 7.2 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 2.4 steals and 1.5 blocks to help the Trojans win the Pac-12 Tournament for the first time since 2014. She is the first USC player to earn first-team AP honors.

“JuJu came to a program that while there’s a proud history, there’s been nothing significant done in many, many years,” Gottlieb said. “It’s very rare for a player of her level to go to a program that’s not already at the top. She’s answered every bell.”

Hidalgo was incredible on both ends of the floor for the Fighting Irish, helping lead them to the ACC Tournament title. She averaged 23.3 points, 6.4 rebounds and 5.5 assists and also led the nation in steals, averaging 4.6 a game.

“She deserves to be listed amongst the best in women’s basketball,” Ivey said. “Hannah is a fierce competitor and an elite performer who rises to the occasion and has been extremely consistent and dominant this season.”

Bueckers finally made it through a season healthy after missing most of the past two years because of injuries. She returned to the form that earned her AP Player of the Year honors as a freshman, averaging 21.3 points, 4.8 rebounds and 3.7 assists for the Huskies.

“She’s one of those unique superstars that wants to be that at both ends of the floor,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “Not everyone values those same things. She gets a lot of enjoyment out of the rebounding that she can do, the blocked shots, the steals, stealing the inbounds pass on the out-of-bounds play. She just has a great sense of the game and what’s happening next. I think that’s probably why she’s never surprised, because I think she always knows what’s happening next.”

Brink averaged 17.8 points, 12 rebounds and 3.5 blocks, which led the nation. She became only the second player in the past 24 years to have 100 blocks and 100 assists in the same season, joining Stewart, who did it three times.

“Cam is the best two-way player in the nation and a dominant force at both ends,” Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said. “In addition to all the points, rebounds and blocks, she’s a selfless teammate and a willing passer who makes everyone around her better.”

Clark, Brink and Bueckers were all on the preseason AP All-America team. They were joined by LSU’s Angel Reese, Indiana’s Mackenzie Holmes and Virginia Tech’s Elizabeth Kitley.

The AP second team was headlined by Kitley, who was the ACC player of the year for a third straight season. She was joined by Reese, South Carolina’s Kamilla Cardoso, Texas’ Madison Booker and Ohio State’s Jacy Sheldon.

The AP third team was Utah’s Alissa Pili, Holmes, Syracuse’s Daisha Fair, Virginia Tech’s Georgia Amoore and Oregon State’s Reagan Beers.

Ayoka Lee of Kansas State, and Aaliyah Edwards of UConn were the leading vote-getters among players who didn’t make the three All-America teams. Players earned honorable-mention status if they appeared on one of the ballots.

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