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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

This is not a moment in women’s basketball. It’s momentum.

Flau’jae Johnson and her Louisiana State teammates after winning the Division I women’s basketball national championship.

By Talya Minsberg

Get ready for the declarations.

This will be called a moment in women’s basketball, a turning point in the college game. There will be sweeping conclusions: Caitlin Clark and Angel Reese, two of college basketball’s biggest stars, have changed the game.

Yes, women play a really good game, but they have for quite some time. Welcome to the party.

This is not a moment. This is momentum.

“We bring the show,” Flau’jae Johnson, a Louisiana State guard, said Sunday while wearing a national championship hat.

These women, part of an increasingly deep pool of talent, are attracting new investments (thanks to name, image and likeness deals) and large numbers of viewers to the sport.

The American Airlines Center in Dallas hosted a capacity crowd of more than 19,000 fans for the NCAA Tournament women’s final, a game that set a ratings record for the event with an average 9.9 million viewers on ESPN.

The performances they witnessed were phenomenal, but they weren’t particularly groundbreaking. Clark, Iowa’s star guard and the national player of the year, has been called a generational player, even by Kim Mulkey, Louisiana State’s coach, whose team beat Iowa for the championship Sunday.

But there were exceptional talents not so long before her: Sheryl Swoopes, Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, Candace Parker, Brittney Griner, Breanna Stewart, Sabrina Ionescu. Clark, as her inspiration, points to Maya Moore, who led UConn to a 150-4 record from 2007 to 2011 and has a collection of Olympic, NCAA and WNBA titles.

Clark spent her season putting on a shooting clinic and dazzling fans with her long-range accuracy. In the round of 8, against Louisville, she finished with 41 points, 10 rebounds and 12 assists, the first 40-point triple-double in a Division I NCAA Tournament game, men’s or women’s. Reese, Louisiana State’s rebounding dynamo, set the Division I record for most double-doubles in a single season when she got her 34th on Sunday in the title game.

After the game, discussion in the locker rooms and on social media centered on trash-talk and foul calls.

Clark and Reese, two of the (rightfully) most confident players on a court, were expected to trade barbs. But when Reese waved her hand in front of her face — mimicking what Clark had done in that round-of-8 game against Louisville, as if to say, “You can’t see me” — and then pointed at her ring finger, a conversation erupted about sportsmanship.

Would a similar moment have attracted the same level of attention in the men’s game? Earlier in the men’s tournament, Florida Atlantic’s Alijah Martin was called “classless” after dunking in the waning seconds of his team’s win over No. 16-seeded Fairleigh Dickinson. But the moment passed quickly.

Perhaps this controversy will subside quickly as well. The unwritten rules about how female athletes — especially Black athletes — are allowed to express themselves on the court are being challenged anew by this generation of players.

“I don’t fit the narrative,” Reese said. “I don’t fit in a box that y’all want me to be in. I’m too hood. I’m too ghetto. But when other people do it, y’all say nothing. So this was for the girls that look like me, that’s going to speak up on what they believe in. It’s unapologetically you. That’s what I did it for tonight. It was bigger than me tonight.”

The millions who watched the championship game saw the talent of Reese and Clark on full display. They also saw the breadth and depth of talent at the collegiate level. Neither Iowa nor LSU had won a women’s basketball national title. In years past, only the top schools seemed able to attract the top basketball talent. This year, dynasties were shaken to their core.

In the second round, Stanford, a No. 1 seed, was taken down by No. 8-seeded Mississippi. On the Hoosiers’ home court, Indiana, also a No. 1 seed, lost to ninth-seeded Miami. Miami went on to upset No. 4-seeded Villanova, led by its star forward, Maddy Siegrist, whose early exit from the tournament led to her declaring for the WNBA draft. In the round of 16, the run of the dynastic UConn team came to an unceremonious halt against No. 3-seeded Ohio State.

Even with the sting of the loss, Stanford player Haley Jones seemed to see what was happening around her. “It’s definitely growth for the women’s game,” she said.

The depth of talent is so great that many of the best players in college basketball will have no roster spots waiting for them in the WNBA, which has long been in talks of expansion.

After falling to LSU, Monika Czinano, a center who was pivotal to Iowa’s advancement to the championship game, discussed playing professionally abroad — not in the United States. She was already planning to set alarms to watch next season’s tournament. There are only 144 spots in the WNBA, and only 36 players are drafted each year.

And now that college athletes are allowed to earn money through NIL deals, top collegians are sticking around longer and are more visible. Jones and Clark have Nike contracts, and Reese has been signed by more than a dozen brands, including Coach.

But for as much as the sport is growing, the question, or perhaps the responsibility, of that evolution is no longer falling so heavily on the players. Maybe it’s because that growth is evident. Maybe it’s because there has been a shift from treating women’s basketball as if it were a cause instead of a sport.

“It’s almost laughable to think about when I was playing or, you know, even when I started out coaching this game, like nobody cared about women’s basketball,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said as members of the news media hung on her every word.

Despite the flood of attention on women’s basketball this weekend, the fight for recognition, and for equity, is far from over.

The spending gap between the men’s and women’s tournament remains, even if it has narrowed. Right now, women’s basketball is broadcast as part of a $34 million bundle that includes other NCAA sports. If rights to the women’s basketball tournament were sold separately, they would be worth at least $85 million a year, according to a report after an inquiry commissioned by the NCAA. The association’s new president, Charlie Baker, suggested Sunday that women’s basketball could get its own deal when the rights are renegotiated; the current contract is up in 2024.

Fans are letting their wallets do the talking until the NCAA catches up.

“Taylor Swift’s in town, and we still sold this place out,” Mulkey said. Thirty minutes before the championship game, the cheapest tickets available were more than $500. The 2023 women’s tournament attracted the most fans in its history, with 357,542 fans.

There are no more arguments that need to be made for women’s basketball. There never were.

And if you didn’t watch this year’s tournament?

“You missing out,” Louisiana State’s Johnson said. “The rest of the country is. What are you doing?”

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