Oh, Yes, It’s Ladies’ Night

A few years back when ESPN shifted the schedule of Women’s March Madness by a day to create a bit more opportunity for its games to stand out from the simultaneous men’s tournament it was generally seen as a concession that, head-to-head, more people care about the boys than the girls.  Creating another night of basketball of any kind was the primary goal; besides, it filled a few more hours during a time of year when tonnage of significance is limited.

But that was before the recent explosion and interest in women’s college hoops, which reached its boiling point a year and a day ago when Iowa and LSU met on a sunny April Fool’s Day afternoon, where a good deal of new people discovered the majestry of Caitlin Clark and the confidence of Angel Reese.  It was a tense battle which Reese and her Tigers were able to win, with a record 9.9 million viewers on the ABC/ESPN family of networks and platforms capitvated.  Reese continued to grow her record-setting social media profile in the wake of her attitudinal win, while Clark proceeded to methodically break virtually every single record of consequence as well as regular season TV ratings.

So the rematch between them that kicked off an Elite Elight doubleheader last night was heavily anticipated and hyped.  And because of the geographies and the demographics of their respective fan bases, it would not be inaccurate to observe this was as much of an ideological war as it was a basketball showdown.  Both good and bad, it did not disappoint.   Per the Associated Press:

Caitlin Clark made nine 3-pointers and finished with 41 points and 12 assists as Iowa knocked defending national champion LSU out of the women’s NCAA Tournament with a 94-87 victory on Monday night, advancing the Hawkeyes to their second straight Final Four.

And while Clark gets to extend her college career by yet another game on her way to the WNBA’s Indiana Fever by summer, Reese will likely return for another go-round, but not without a good deal of pain and self-reflection, which she allowed herself to express during last night’s post-mortem.  As BLEACHER REPORT’s Scott Polacek reported:

Basketball was far from the only thing on LSU star Angel Reese’s mind after her team’s 94-87 loss to Iowa in Monday’s Elite Eight game of the 2024 NCAA women’s tournament.

“I just try to stay strong,” she told reporters. “I’ve been through so much. I’ve seen so much. I’ve been attacked so many times. Death threats, I’ve been sexualized, I’ve been threatened. I’ve been so many things, and I’ve stood strong every single time.

“… I’m still human. All this has happened since I won the national championship, and I said the other day, I haven’t been happy since then.”

The nightcap featured an equally compelling battle between old and new.  And while even casual fans of the women’s game know the legacy and track record of UConn and its storied coach Geno Auriemma, they’ve rarely seen him and his Huskies in the role of an underdog (pardon the pun).  As ESPN’s Alexa Philippou reported:

A slew of injuries hampered the Huskies for a third straight season. They hardly looked like a Final Four team when they lost three games in the first month and took more recent hits in nonconference play with losses to South Carolina and Notre Dame

But they still had one player who could transcend all else — Paige Bueckers — and a cast of supporting characters who came through to put UConn back in the Final Four like it never left.

Behind Bueckers’ 28 points, 10 rebounds, 6 assists, 3 steals and 2 blocks, the third-seeded Huskies defeated 1-seed USC 80-73 in the Portland 3 regional final on Monday to secure the program’s 23rd Final Four appearance and 15th in the past 16 women’s NCAA tournaments.

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