DALLAS – This is sports, so numbers matter.
They can be celebrated by winners and help tell the story. They may hunt down the losing side, but they still provide context. No. No. 2 Iowa also has a No. Friday night’s Final Four matchup between No. 1 seed South Carolina was significant. Like 77-73 – which shocked many as it favored Iowa. 41 – Number of points scored by Caitlin Clark. Or 49 — the number of rebounds the Gamecocks grabbed, even with two first-half fouls off their All-America post Alia Boston’s bench. Or 20 — the number of fouls called in South Carolina, depending on who you ask — and some of them (wanted or not) are whistles. Or 19,288 – the sellout crowd at American Airlines Arena for the final four games.
But the number that practitioners of film studies can’t pin down or extract from the box score will matter over the years. If TV viewership figures are released, they will break records. While it’s unclear exactly how many televisions tuned in Friday night, it’s safe to say that the Iowa-South Carolina Final Four will be the most-watched women’s basketball game of all time.
It was a good game because of the build-up and the hype, but it was a great game because it really lived up to the hype as the field of four women’s college basketball teams dwindled to two in Dallas.
It’s Caitlin Clark vs. Aaliyah Boston, former National Player of the Year vs. Current National Player of the Year. But the anticipation for this game was even higher. An offense that scored a generation against the greatest team defense in women’s college basketball history, a defense so good that South Carolina coach Don Staley unleashed five different plays on Clark in an attempt to slow down an unstoppable player. The game was delivered.
“I think tonight showed how much fun women’s basketball can be,” Clark said. “Two great teams that went at it. I’m sure a lot of people want it to be seven series. That’s going to be a lot of fun.”
Why no one can stop Iowa star Kaitlin Clark, not even South Carolina’s elite defense
Both Iowa and South Carolina have had their starting centers together over the last three seasons, creating a near-impossible streak and making these matchups very good, tight chess contests. There are going to be no surprises or changes that both teams haven’t seen or considered or looked for. Monica Sinano isn’t going to suddenly become a prolific dribbler, and Boston isn’t going to step outside the 3-point line to initiate shots.
Of course, for Staley, there will be other numbers that stick out. Three turnovers late by Gamecox could have allowed the game to go differently had they not happened. Three turnovers, if it had been two or one or zero, could have been the difference between South Carolina turning the tide and digging themselves a hole they couldn’t climb out of. That means Staley won’t be answering questions about next season just yet, as this season still has some left. That means she’s still thinking about chasing the perfect 38-0 season instead of finishing 36-1.
But for fans of the game, it was a display of great basketball players performing at the highest level for two Hall of Fame coaches. It put on one hell of a show for the 19,288 people in the arena and the millions at home.
“I hope they saw some individual performances that will bring them back. I hope they saw the grit of an undefeated team and I hope they want to learn more about not only us, but LSU and what Kim Mulkey has done this season and getting to the national championship game. . . . Virginia Tech and Kenny Brooks and him being in the Final Four for the first time. And then the whole tournament,” Staley said. “I hope they ask why we don’t have all the No. 1 seeds. They’ll find out that we’ve had some incredible, exciting games, and that’s not every No. 1 seed here.
On Sunday, for the third time in history, there were no No. 1 seeds at the Women’s National Championships. It doesn’t feature the must-have team (South Carolina) or the always-there team (UConn). It doesn’t have the game’s winningest coach (Stanford’s Tara Vanderveer) or other perennial powers.
Instead, on Sunday, one of the last two teams standing will win its first national title.
Iowa and LSU shine in different ways. The Hawkeyes have The Caitlin Clark Show, but the Tigers have The show Slice it any way you want, it’s still good for women’s basketball. When nearly 20,000 people fill the seats to watch LSU’s Angel Reese and Clark in Sunday’s title game, and millions more tune in to see what Kim Mulkey might wear, they’ll be counted as being there for 40 minutes of basketball.
As each team returns to a 0-0 record, this season’s stats will fall by the wayside. The ratings for Friday’s Iowa-South Carolina matchup illustrate the rapid growth and growing demand for women’s basketball nationally. But this game will be remembered as having innumerable advantages for the game.
(Top photo: Tom Pennington/Getty Images)