DALLAS — It’s sports, so the numbers will matter.
They can be celebrated by the winners and help tell the story. They may go after the losing side, but they will still provide context. The numbers from Friday night’s Final Four matchup between No. 2 seed Iowa and No. 1 seed South Carolina are significant. Like 77-73, the score that, being in favor of Iowa, surprised many. Like 41, the number of points Caitlin Clark scored. Or 49: The number of rebounds the Gamecocks grabbed, even with post All-America Aliyah Boston on the bench for much of the first half with two fouls. Or 20: The number of fouls called in South Carolina, some of which (should or should not have been) whistles, depending on who you ask. Or 19,288: The sellout crowd at American Airlines Arena for Final Four games.
But the number that will matter most years from now will be the one that can’t be dissected by coaches at the movie studio or broken down from sheet music. When the TV viewing figures are released, records will be broken. Although it was not known exactly how many televisions were tuned in Friday night, we can say with almost certainty 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 setup and the debate, but it was a great game because it actually lived up to the hype as the field of four varsity women’s basketball teams was whittled down to two in Dallas.
It was announced as Caitlin Clark vs. Aliyah Boston, the current National Player of the Year vs. the former National Player of the Year. But the anticipation for this game revolved around so much more. An offense led by a generational scorer against one of the greatest team defenses in women’s college basketball history, a defense so good that South Carolina coach Dawn Staley was able to throw five different matchups on Clark in an attempt to stop an unstoppable player. The game delivered.
“I think tonight showed how much fun women’s basketball is,” Clark said. “Two really great teams that did it. I’m sure a lot of people wish this was a series of seven. That would be really, really fun.”
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Both Iowa and South Carolina have had their starting cores together for the past three seasons, building the kind of continuity that’s almost impossible to achieve and that made these matchups that much better, even tighter. There were going to be no surprises or changes that either team had seen, considered, or explored. Monika Czinano wasn’t going to suddenly become a great dribbler, and Boston wasn’t going to go out to the 3-point line to start shooting.
Of course, for Staley, there will be other numbers that stand out. Three turnovers the Gamecocks had late that, if they hadn’t happened, could have allowed the game to go any differently. Three turnovers that, if they had been two, one or zero, might have been the difference between South Carolina turning the tide and digging a hole they couldn’t get out of. That could have meant that Staley still wouldn’t be answering questions about the upcoming season because there would still be some of this season left. It could have meant he was still thinking about chasing perfection, a 38-0 season instead of finishing 36-1.
But for fans of the game, this was simply a showcase of great basketball players performing at the highest level for two Hall of Fame coaches. And that gave the 19,288 in the arena and the millions at home quite a show.
“I hope you’ve seen some individual performances that bring you back. I hope you’ve seen the determination of a team that was undefeated, and I hope you want to learn a lot more, not just about us, but about LSU and what Kim Mulkey has done this season and get to a national championship game. … Virginia Tech and Kenny Brooks and their first time in the Final Four. And then the whole tournament,” Staley said. “We didn’t have all the No. 1 seeds here, and I hope you ask why. And you’ll find that we had some amazing, exciting games that led to not all of the No. 1 seeds being here.”
On Sunday, for the third time in history, the women’s national championship will be without the No. 1 seeds. It will be without the team that seemed destined to be there (South Carolina) or the team that has seemingly always been there (UConn). . It won’t have the game’s winningest coach (Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer) or other perennial powerhouses.
Instead, on Sunday, one of the last two teams standing will win its first national title.
Iowa and LSU are flashy in different ways. The Hawkeyes have The Caitlin Clark Show, but the Tigers have He Show. Cut it however you want and 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 will be counted for showing up for 40 minutes of basketball.
Stats this season will fall by the wayside as all teams return to a 0-0 record. The ratings for Friday’s Iowa-South Carolina game will illustrate the exponential growth of women’s basketball and the growing national demand for it. But the game will also be remembered for having countless benefits for the sport.
(Top photo: Tom Pennington/Getty Images)