STARKVILLE, Miss. (AP) Anriel Howard's relentless rebounding and scoring have helped Mississippi State remain among the nation's elite women's programs. Simone Westbrook's savvy, passing and shooting are a major reason Clemson has become one of this year's surprise teams.
The two veterans, who will both play in the NCAA Tournament on Friday, are part of a relatively new group of players in women's basketball: graduate transfers.
The NCAA rule allows players who have completed their bachelor's degree the opportunity to play immediately. It's an option that caught on quickly in the men's game, with 94 players switching schools in 2017.
But just 48 women took advantage of the same provision in 2017, which is the last year that the NCAA has data. That number was more than double the 21 who transferred in 2015.
Howard expects the number to continue rising.
''It's been growing even since my collegiate career started,'' Howard said. ''It was a trending thing for the men and then this year, when I decided I wanted to pursue it, there were a few more girls who wanted to do that. So I think it's growing for women's basketball.
''I'm grateful it's happened because it gives us an opportunity.''
The 5-foot-11 Howard transferred from Texas A&M after three productive seasons. She immediately found a niche in Mississippi State's offense and is averaging 16.2 points and 8.2 rebounds per game. Her production has helped replace former All-American Victoria Vivians, who is now in the WNBA.
Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer said Howard has been even better than he hoped. The Bulldogs have a 30-2 record, won the SEC regular season and tournament titles and are now a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
''When she came here, she was very clear, `I want to win a championship and I want somebody to help me get ready for the next level,''' Schaefer said. ''I think we've done that. We've won (SEC) championships. I think there's one she'd still like to win - as would I.
''As for the next level, there's no question she'll be drafted.''
Westbrook's story is a little more unorthodox.
She's a 5-8 guard now in her seventh year of eligibility - and she just turned 25. The journey, which was dotted by injuries and unusual circumstances, includes stops at Arizona, Northwest Florida State College, Florida and now Clemson.
She used the graduate transfer exemption to play her final season at Clemson, following coach Amanda Butler, who had been fired at Florida after the 2017 season.
It's worked out for both sides: Westbrook is averaging more than 13 points per game and Butler was the ACC coach of the year after leading the Tigers to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2002.
''To be with this group of girls is definitely something you can only wish for,'' Westbrook said. ''To end this with an NCAA Tournament and the way we wanted it to go, you couldn't wish for anything better.''
Butler said she's glad Westbrook had the opportunity to end her career with success.
''The way the rules are now with the NCAA, it really gives the student-athlete options,'' Butler said. ''You see a lot more of them taking advantage of their options, which I think it great.
''You've got four years to play and that's it. That should be something that's really special.''
Some other graduate transfers who could play pivotal roles in the NCAA Tournament:
CHLOE JACKSON, BAYLOR
The 5-8 guard arrived at Baylor after playing two seasons at LSU. She's been a big part of the Bears' success this season , averaging 11.4 points and more than five assists.
SIERRA CALHOUN AND CHARISE WILSON, RUTGERS
The Scarlet Knights have relied on the guard duo to help Rutgers win 22 games. The 5-5 Wilson transferred from Rhode Island while the 6-0 Calhoun came from Ohio State.
Wilson is averaging 7.5 points per game and Calhoun is averaging four points.
DANNI WILLIAMS, TEXAS
The 5-foot-10 guard became a Longhorn after three seasons at Texas A&M. She's averaging 11 points per game, helping Texas win 23 games heading into the NCAA Tournament.
More AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/WomensNCAATournament and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25