NEW YORK - Rhyne Howard's combination of dedication, skill and versatility on the basketball court has allowed her to be successful at multiple levels of the sport.
That has come with its share of honors over the years, so being recognized as one of the best in the current game is nothing new for the Bradley Central High School graduate.
Now, though, as Howard's University of Kentucky career winds down - with the Wildcats on a hot streak entering the NCAA tournament - and she eventually shifts to more focused preparation for her WNBA future, she has achieved a level of recognition few have ever enjoyed in women's college basketball.
The Associated Press released its All-America selections for the 2021-22 season Wednesday, and Howard was on the first team for the third time, making the 6-foot-2 senior from Cleveland, Tennessee, just the ninth player to achieve that feat.
"That's huge. Definitely selective company. To be a three-time (first-team selection) and one of nine, now that's something you had to work for," Howard said. "I don't know how to explain it. I was glad I was able to accomplish that."
Howard was joined on the first team by South Carolina's Aliyah Boston, Iowa's Caitlin Clark, Baylor's NaLyssa Smith, Michigan's Naz Hillmon and Stanford's Haley Jones. Hillmon and Jones tied for the fifth spot.
Boston, Clark and Smith were unanimous choices from the 30-member national media panel that votes in the AP Top 25 poll each week. It was the first time there has been a tie on the first team since the AP started honoring women's All-Americans in 1995.
The most recent player to be a three-time All-American before Howard was Oregon's Sabrina Ionescu in 2020. Boston could join the club next year.
The other players to make the first team at least three times are Duke's Alana Beard, Baylor's Brittney Griner, Tennessee's Chamique Holdsclaw, Oklahoma's Courtney Paris, South Carolina's A'ja Wilson and Connecticut's Maya Moore and Breanna Stewart. Moore and Paris did it four times.
Howard helped Kentucky get on a roll at the end of the regular season and win the Southeastern Conference tournament as the league's No. 7 seed, which required the Wildcats to win four games in four days in Nashville. Kentucky took down top-seeded, top-ranked South Carolina in the SEC title game - the Gamecocks are now the No. 1 overall seed for the NCAA's 68-team bracket - and heads into March Madness with a 19-11 record and as a No. 6 seed.
The Wildcats' opening matchup is against 11th-seeded Princeton (24-4) at 4 p.m. Saturday in Bloomington, Indiana, with ESPN televising the game. The winner plays again Monday, facing the winner of Saturday's earlier matchup between site host and third-seeded Indiana (22-8) and 14th-seeded Charlotte (22-9).
As she has been for four years now, Howard is at the heart of the Wildcats' success. For the 2021-22 season, she has per-game averages of 20.6 points, 7.3 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 2.4 steals. She also has 39 blocks - 10 more than in any other season during her Kentucky tenure - and has averaged a career-high 35.4 minutes per game.
Kyra Elzy, a Wildcats assistant for the first half of Howard's career before becoming the team's head coach, called Howard "the best player in women's college basketball" in a Kentucky release Wednesday.
"She is the most versatile player I have ever coached," Elzy added in the release. "What sets her apart from everyone else is that she can play every position on the floor and be offensively and defensively exceptional at each."
Howard is a considered a potential No. 1 pick for the WNBA draft, which is April 11 in New York. The Washington Mystics have the top pick.
South Carolina's Boston has been dominant on both ends of the floor to help the Gamecocks (29-2) make a wire-to-wire run as No. 1 in the AP poll from the preseason to the postseason. The 6-5 junior has averaged 16.8 points and 12.0 rebounds this season and set an SEC record for consecutive games with a double-double, a streak that currently stands at 24.
"Aliyah is a great player, a generational player having an exceptional season because she dedicated her offseason to putting herself in this position," South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. "Her ability to not just affect but dominate a game every minute she's on the court is special."
Iowa's Clark put up eye-popping numbers for the second straight year. The 6-0 sophomore averaged 27.4 points, 8.1 rebounds and 7.9 assists to help the Hawkeyes sweep the Big Ten regular-season and tournament championships.
"Her repeat selection to such a prestigious team demonstrates her consistency and commitment to growth," Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. "To lead the country in points and assists for two years is absolutely remarkable."
Baylor's Smith was a first-team pick for the second consecutive season. The 6-4 senior averaged 22.5 points and 11.5 rebounds while shooting 55% from the field, and she helped the Bears win a 12th consecutive Big 12 regular-season championship.
"NaLyssa is an versatile and elite athlete who excels in the lane but has consistently faced up and knocked down jump shots this season," Baylor coach Nicki Collen said. "She has rebounded and defended at a high level and seems to always play her best in the biggest moments."
Michigan's Hillmon is her program's first player to make the AP's first team, doing so a year after being on the second team. The 6-2 senior helped the Wolverines to their highest ranking ever and averaged 21.0 points and 9.4 rebounds.
"She obviously makes such an impact on the court for our program and has helped elevate Michigan women's basketball," Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said in a team release. "It's not what just she does on the court, but it's also her impact in the community and her ability to continue to use her voice for change that are such a huge part of her legacy at Michigan."
Stanford's Jones, who was the most outstanding player of the Final Four last year when the Cardinal won the national championship, averaged 13.1 points, 7.9 rebounds and 3.7 assists this season as a 6-1 junior.
Longtime coach Tara VanDerveer said Jones "affects all facets of a game and can alter the trajectory of a matchup in ways that few others can, while seeming to play her best in the big moments."
Boston, Clark, Howard and Smith were also on the preseason All-America team. The fifth member of that group was Connecticut's Paige Bueckers, who missed two months of the season with a knee injury but received honorable mention Wednesday. This was the first time since 2007 that the Huskies did not have a player on an AP All-America team.
The second team was headlined by Kansas State's Ayoka Lee, who scored 61 points to set an NCAA women's single-game record. She was joined by Iowa State's Ashley Joens, DePaul's Aneesah Morrow, LSU's Khayla Pointer and North Carolina State's Elissa Cunane, who is on the second or third team for a third year.
On the third team are Virginia Tech's Elizabeth Kitley, Villanova's Maddy Siegrist, Northwestern's Veronica Burton, Stanford's Cameron Brink and Maryland's Angel Reese. Burton, Kitley and Siegrist broke ground: Each is the first for her program to make an AP All-America team.
Bueckner was joined by teammate Christyn Williams in receiving honorable mention, and South Carolina also had two players in that group with Zia Cooke and Destanni Henderson.
The other honorable mention selections: Shakira Austin (Ole Miss), Kierstan Bell (Florida Gulf Coast), Katie Benzan (Maryland), Grace Berger (Indiana), Nia Clouden (Michigan State), Jennifer Coleman (Navy), Monika Czinano (Iowa), Jasmine Dickey (Delaware), Emily Engstler (Louisville), Dyaisha Fair (Buffalo), Shaylee Gonzales (BYU), Rori Harmon (Texas), Jordan Horston (Tennessee), Abby Meyers (Princeton), Olivia Miles (Notre Dame), Ashley Owusu (Maryland), Cate Reese (Arizona), Taylor Robertson (Oklahoma), Jacy Sheldon (Ohio State), Macee Williams (IUPUI) and Katelyn Young (Murray State).