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Will point guard play determine winner in Kansas City Regional?

Mississippi State senior Morgan William is averaging 4.5 assists per game to just 1.1 turnovers per game. AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

KANSAS CITY -- Morgan William smiles and says she tries to get out all of her mistakes during practice. The Mississippi State point guard measures much of her performance in games on turnovers and attempts to limit them as much as possible without it impacting her aggressiveness.

She has done that brilliantly; William has 157 assists to just 38 turnovers in her senior season. The Bulldogs rank second in the nation in turnover rate, according to Her Hoop Stats, as they turn the ball over on just 12.6 percent of their possessions.

That's a big part of how William impacts her team: protecting the ball. But she's also a very energetic force on defense. And when she needs to score, she can do that, too. She's averaging 7.8 points per game this season, but her 17 points in a NCAA tournament second-round victory were her second-highest total this season, and much-needed in a tough game against Oklahoma State.

Here at the Kansas City Regional, William and her counterparts at point guard all could have a major impact on which team survives for a trip to the Final Four in Columbus. Friday in the semifinals, No. 1 seed Mississippi State faces fourth-seeded NC State at Sprint Center (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET), followed by No. 2 Texas vs. No. 3 UCLA (ESPN2, 9 p.m. ET).

UCLA coach Cori Close played point guard at UC Santa Barbara, and she knows firsthand how much impact that position has, especially the deeper that teams get into the NCAA tournament.

"I probably wouldn't be a coach if I hadn't been influenced to have to think the game, as well as play the game, in very intense situations," Close said. "I think at this level, coaches do not determine what happens as much as point guards do.

"Point guards have to be able to communicate in the most pressurized moments. They have to be able to direct, to prevent things, to make plays. They have to have a sense of what their team needs from them."

William was one of the big heroes of the 2017 NCAA tournament, scoring 41 points to lead Mississippi State over Baylor in the regional final and then hitting the shot that beat UConn in the national semifinals.

Friday, she'll go against redshirt sophomore Kaila Ealey, who is in her first season starting for NC State. Ealey grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina, home of the Wolfpack, and called NC State her "dream school." She suffered an ACL injury early in 2015-16 and redshirted, then last season played behind senior Miah Spencer.

This season, Ealey's playing time jumped from 13.2 minutes per game to 33.3. She's averaging 8.9 PPG, and has 146 assists to 85 turnovers in helping NC State advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2007. At 5-foot-8, Ealey has some height on the 5-5 William, but she admires her skill and vision.

"She's really quick, and she sees the court very well," Ealey said. "I think I'll have to try my hardest to stay in front of her and trust our game plan."

The second semifinal features two senior point guards who have been very important in the resurgence of their programs. Texas hadn't advanced to the Sweet 16 in the 10 years before the Longhorns did it in Brooke McCarty's freshman season in 2015. Now they've made it at least that far each year of McCarty's career.

The Sweet 16 drought for UCLA was even longer before Jordin Canada helped lead the team there as a sophomore point guard in 2016. UCLA hadn't advanced that far in the NCAA tournament since 1999. Now the Bruins are in their third consecutive Sweet 16, something the program had never before done in the NCAA tournament era, which began in 1982.

Texas and UCLA are programs that had great players and accomplishments in the past -- the Longhorns won the NCAA title in 1986 and made their last Final Four in 2003; the Bruins won the AIAW title in 1978 -- but that all was ancient history by the time the current class of seniors started their college careers.

"Brooke bought a vision from our coaching staff," Texas coach Karen Aston said. "And she knew we saw something really special in her, when maybe others didn't. What she's done to elevate our program is pretty priceless."

McCarty is from League City, Texas, which is in the greater Houston area, about 3 1/2 hours' drive from Austin. McCarty shared some of the point guard duties her first two years, but she has handled that role mostly herself as a junior, when she was named Big 12 player of the year, and this season. McCarty is averaging 13.7 points with 145 assists and 57 turnovers.

"The process has been pretty amazing," the 5-4 McCarty said. "[Aston] is hard on her point guards, and I have to be that second coach out there, a reflection of her."

McCarty and Canada have met in the Sweet 16 before; the Longhorns beat the Bruins 72-64 in the semis of the Bridgeport Regional in 2016 when both were sophomores. Canada had 20 points and three assists in that game; McCarty had 15 and four.

Canada, like NC State's Ealey, is playing for a college in her hometown; Canada's Windward High School in Los Angeles is about 10 minutes from UCLA's Pauley Pavilion. Things weren't always rosy between Canada and Close; early on, they sometimes butted heads. But they've developed a good working relationship on the way to Canada becoming the Pac-12's all-time assists leader (818).

"We talked it out," Canada said. "I can definitely say that we're at a great spot right now."

She's averaging 16.7 points this season, with 235 assists to 85 turnovers. Canada also has 106 steals this season, and 339 for her career. Close said a few years ago, she and Canada mapped out what kind of statistics Canada would need to be considered a potential top-five WNBA draft pick.

"She has met or exceeded those statistics," Close said. "I'm not sure you're going to find a more complete point guard. Her intellect and her ability to understand the game, I think, is first.

"Then her ability on defense to be able to guard multiple people. We've done a lot of switching this year, and we have never once gotten beat with her switching on to a post player. She'll find a way to do what she needs, either on the ball or away from the ball, to help our team get a stop."

William has been that kind of defensive stalwart, too, for Mississippi State, which is trying to make a return trip to the Final Four and has lost just one game this season: the SEC tournament final to South Carolina. William has adjusted her game offensively to give the Bulldogs whatever they need depending on the opponent.

And that's really what all four starting point guards in this regional are most intent on doing: figuring out -- sometimes on the fly -- what's most required of them.

"I've just got to stay aggressive each game," William said. "I just always have to go out there and do my part."