Blockbuster Monday: NCAA women’s tournament reaches fever pitch with 4 transcendent stars, 2 major showdowns

By | April 1, 2024

ALBANY, NY — Caitlin, Angel, JuJu and Paige. Oh my.

Monday night’s Elite Eight doubleheader is a blockbuster event that fans no doubt dreamed of when the bracket dropped. But they shook it off in the morning as the wildness of it dawned on them.

Waking. No viewership record is safe. Also, there is no No. 2 seed. In fact, every Elite Eight matchup is a 1-on-3 as a fitting coda to a season in which no team could hold on to second place in the Associated Press poll.

The first course is No. 1 seed Iowa and No. 3 LSU in a rematch of the 2023 national championship game won by the Tigers. Each of these teams in the Albany 2 region features a star-studded cast, but none are more famous than all-time NCAA scorer Caitlin Clark of Iowa and “Bayou Barbie” Angel Reese of LSU.

“If I was just a basketball fan, I would be glued to the TV like no other,” Clark said Sunday before praising the other three stars who headlined the night. “I think female basketball fans know how special and cool this moment will be. I think the ratings will show that.”

Iowa guard Caitlin Clark, 22, looks out at the crowd during a home game in March.  (AP Photo/Cliff Jette)

Iowa guard Caitlin Clark, 22, looks out at the crowd during a home game in March. (AP Photo/Cliff Jette)

Then comes No. 1 seed USC and No. 3 UConn, a battle of legendary women’s hoops powerhouses in the Portland region 3. JuJu Watkins is the favorite to win National Freshman of the Year honors and is on track to win to eclipse Clark’s scoring record if she stays for four years. UConn’s Paige Bueckers, who already has a pair of trophies in her bag, is back from an ACL injury that kept her out all of last season.

“I saw someone tweeting or something today, RIP for the ratings, right? It’s going to crush everything,” USC head coach Lindsay Gottlieb said. “I think we’d all tell you, it’s USC vs. UConn, and it’s LSU vs. Iowa. But star power drives stories in athletics.”

Watkins, 2021 Naismith winner Bueckers and reigning Player of the Year winner Clark are among the four 2024 Naismith finalists with large fan bases and highly visible deals in the name, image and likeness era. The clash of individual star power is suitably elite and will potentially carry over into the pros for the next decade. Never before has there been so much clashing talent in a widely accessible five-hour cable interview so early in the history of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament.

“There was only one game on TV when I was a kid, and that was CBS probably squeezing it in with three commercials [airing] the championship,” said Iowa assistant Jan Jensen. “I remember just being glued to it, but we certainly didn’t pay attention to it as kids.”

LSU's Angel Reese (left) interacts with teammate Hailey Van Lith during a Sweet 16 win on Saturday.  (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)LSU's Angel Reese (left) interacts with teammate Hailey Van Lith during a Sweet 16 win on Saturday.  (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

LSU’s Angel Reese (left) interacts with teammate Hailey Van Lith during a Sweet 16 win on Saturday. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

The LSU-Iowa title game drew a record average of 9.9 million viewers and peaked at 12.6 million on ABC during a Sunday matinee. Most expected about 7 or 8 million; the actual number fell open and interest continues to rise. The Iowa games drew record numbers for a handful of networks this year as Clark set her way to scoring records, wowing everyone from casual fans to players with her signature logo 3s.

“Last year I was allowed to hire her [defensively] early in the game, and I thought, ‘She’s not really going to make that,'” LSU sophomore guard Flau’jae Johnson said. “And then she really took it out of half court, and she did it.” I thought, ‘Wow.’”

Iowa draws the most attention, but games not involving Clark have also achieved historic numbers and growth. More people (1.56 million) watched Sunday’s regular-season game between LSU and South Carolina, which clinched its first Final Four bid, than that evening’s “NBA on TNT” broadcast between the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat.

“It’s just another game to help grow women’s basketball,” Reese said.

USC's JuJu Watkins looks on after an NCAA tournament first-round victory over Kansas on March 25.  (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)USC's JuJu Watkins looks on after an NCAA tournament first-round victory over Kansas on March 25.  (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)

USC’s JuJu Watkins looks on after an NCAA tournament second-round win against Kansas on March 25. (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)

It could be one of the most monumental moments in women’s basketball history on Monday and there is some disappointment or concern that it doesn’t happen on the final weekend in Cleveland.

“We talk about growing the game,” LSU head coach Kim Mulkey said. “Didn’t that national championship game have the highest ratings ever in women’s basketball? You probably expect this too, but it has to be at the Final Four.”

That it’s on ESPN, and not a traditional major broadcast channel that’s more readily available, could also dampen the ceiling on viewership. The 2023 title game was the first to air on ABC after decades on the ESPN networks. With so much young talent, including Watkins and Texas star Madison Booker, and the sport’s meteoric rise, it’s something the network will have to consider moving forward.

“This is not the highlight in my opinion,” Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder said. “This is just the beginning and I just hope we continue to gain the momentum we need.”

UConn's Paige Bueckers reacts after a basket against Syracuse on March 25.  (David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports)UConn's Paige Bueckers reacts after a basket against Syracuse on March 25.  (David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports)

UConn’s Paige Bueckers reacts after a basket against Syracuse on March 25. (David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports)

Bluder and Jensen have talked a lot this season about how grateful they are to see the growth of the game playing six-on-six at Iowa and dreaming wildly in the 2000s of one day packing Carver-Hawkeye Arena. The Hawkeyes played all but two games in front of sold-out crowds, both at home and on the road. Number 35 will be sold out Monday night in Albany.

“It’s just a really cool kind of full-circle meeting moment,” Jensen said. “And I feel like I’m just excited for all the kids that get to watch that night because they’re going to see a lot of stars shining.”

The game has come a very long way not only since their childhood, but also back when it was a few lean years ago, when these stars wouldn’t have had the season-long fame that helped create blockbuster viewing experiences.

“It might be the most fun two days, today and tomorrow, that we’ve had in a long time,” UConn head coach Geno Auriemma said.

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