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

ALBANY, N.Y. — Caitlin, Angel, JuJu and Paige. Oh my.

The Elite Eight doubleheader on Monday night is a blockbuster event that, sure, fans might have dreamed of when the bracket came out. But they shook it off in the morning when the wildness of it dawned on them.

Wake up. No viewership record is safe. Nor is any No. 2 seed. In fact, every Elite Eight matchup is a 1 vs. 3 as a fitting coda to a season in which no team could keep hold of the No. 2 ranking 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 regional features a star-studded cast, but none more well-known than NCAA all-time scoring leader Caitlin Clark of Iowa and “Bayou Barbie” Angel Reese of LSU.

“If I was just a basketball fan in general, I'd be glued to the TV like no other,” Clark said on Sunday before praising the other three stars headlining the night. “I think women's basketball fans know how special and cool this moment will be. I think the viewership numbers will show that.”

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

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

“I saw somewhere today someone tweeted or something, RIP to the viewership numbers, right? It's going to crush everything,” USC head coach Lindsay Gottlieb said. “I think we would all tell you, it's USC against UConn, and it's LSU against Iowa. But star power drives narratives 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 high-visibility deals in the name, image and likeness era. The clash of individual star power is fittingly elite and will carry for potentially the next decade into the pros. Never before has there been this much colliding talent in a widely accessible five-hour window on cable this early in NCAA women’s basketball tournament history.

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

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) (Sarah Stier via Getty Images)

The LSU-Iowa title game drew a record average of 9.9 million viewers and peaked at 12.6 million on ABC in a Sunday matinee. Most expected around 7 or 8 million; the actual number dropped jaws and interest continues to soar. Iowa’s games drew record numbers this year for a handful of networks as Clark charged toward the scoring records and wowed everyone from casual fans to players with her signature logo 3s.

“Last year I got to switch on her [defensively] early in the game, and I was like, she's not going to pull that for real,” LSU sophomore guard Flau’jae Johnson said. “And then she pulled it for real from half court, and she made it. I was like, 'Whoa.'”

Iowa draws the most attention, but games not involving Clark have also hit historic marks and growth. More people (1.56 million) watched the regular season matchup between LSU and South Carolina, which clinched the first Final Four bid on Sunday, than that night’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 a first-round NCAA tournament win over Kansas on March 25. (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)
USC's JuJu Watkins looks on after a second-round NCAA tournament win over Kansas on March 25. (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images) (Jayne Kamin-Oncea via Getty Images)

It could be one of the most monumental moments in women’s basketball history on Monday and there’s a level of disappointment or concern it’s not happening during 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're probably going to anticipate this one will, too, but it needs to be at the Final Four.”

That it is on ESPN, and not a traditional major broadcast channel more readily available, could also dampen the ceiling on viewership numbers. 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 rocket ship ascension of the sport, that’s something for the network to consider in the future.

“This is not like the pinnacle in my opinion,” Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder said. “This is just the start of it, and I just hope we keep getting the momentum that 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) (USA TODAY Sports via Reuters Connect / Reuters)

Bluder and Jensen spent a lot of this season speaking on how grateful they are to see the growth of the game from playing six-on-six in Iowa and wildly dreaming in the 2000s of packing Carver-Hawkeye Arena one day. The Hawkeyes played all but two of their games in front of sold-out crowds at home and on the road. Monday night in Albany will be sellout No. 35.

“It's just a really cool kind of full-circle meeting 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 gonna get to see a lot of stars shine.”

The game has come quite a long way from not only their childhood, but where it was a measly few years ago when these stars wouldn’t have had the season-long exposure that helped create blockbuster viewing.

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