Sports

The women's NCAA Tournament had center stage. The stars, and the games, delivered in a big way

There were plenty of people at a movie theater in central Iowa on Monday night, though very few of them were watching an actual movie.

They were there to see Caitlin Clark.

And they weren't alone. Not even close. Millions of people — 12.3 million, the most to ever watch a women's basketball game, according to ESPN — tuned in across America to watch the opener of an NCAA Tournament doubleheader that captivated fans like never before. Clark and Iowa, in a national-title-game rematch against Angel Reese and LSU in one game; Paige Bueckers and perennial power UConn against freshman sensation JuJu Watkins and Southern California in the other.

The winners on the scoreboard: Iowa and UConn, which are heading to the Final Four in Cleveland this weekend. Perhaps the biggest winner: the women's game, which had the March Madness stage all to itself on Monday night with massive star power delivering two games worthy of the over-the-top billing, and maybe, just maybe, adding a few new fans along the way.

“It’s a perfect opportunity to make the moment a movement,” said former Division I guard Isis Young, now a broadcaster and analyst. “Right now, women’s basketball is a movement ... and the movement is really riding on the back of these players that we're watching.”

And make no mistake: People were watching. Last year's LSU-Iowa national championship game, on ABC, drew 9.9 million viewers. Monday's LSU-Iowa rematch, on cable, crushed that number.

Baseball had a no-hitter on Monday night; Ronel Blanco's gem for Houston against Toronto didn't seem to capture attention the way Iowa-LSU and UConn-USC did. Phoenix's Devin Booker scored 52 points, his league-high-tying third game of 50 or more this season; it happened while fellow NBA guards Damian Lillard and Patrick Beverley were tweeting about Watkins and Clark.

"Caitlin Clark the truth," offered New York Knicks forward Josh Hart.

In homes, in sports bars from Seattle to Miami, even in NBA locker rooms, the women's games Monday night had people staring at televisions. At a sports bar in Indianapolis, where the NBA's Pacers were simultaneously playing maybe a block or so away, most TVs were on Iowa-LSU. Indiana's WNBA team has the No. 1 pick in the draft this year. There's no mystery about who it will select; the city knows Clark will soon be calling Indianapolis home.

“Not only did we have all the TVs on the game, we had them with the sound on, too,” said Clara Husson, a longtime basketball referee in New England. She missed her morning flight from Indianapolis to Boston after a weekend wedding and was given two options for a rescheduling opportunity — Monday night or Tuesday morning.

She chose Tuesday. Easy call. “I wasn't missing these games,” she said.

This was not just another night for women's basketball. The buzz built throughout the day. Rapper Travis Scott told his nearly 12 million followers on X, the site formerly known as Twitter, that Monday "might be one for the illest days in women's sports historyyyyyyy." And Hall of Famer Magic Johnson let his 5.2 million followers know he considered Monday's two-game slate "one of the best in history."

The games didn't disappoint. Bettors took notice, too — even a 4:15 p.m. start time in Las Vegas didn't keep LSU-Iowa from setting records, a surefire gauge of whether people had interest.

“It is the biggest handle we’ve seen for a women’s game," Jay Kornegay, executive vice president of race and sports operations at Westgate Las Vegas, said shortly before tipoff. “It’s already surpassed last year's final with these two teams.”

Had the game been later in the day, Kornegay said, the numbers would have been even bigger.

South Carolina and North Carolina State reached the Final Four with wins on Sunday, a day when the women's game was going head to head with men's tournament games. Monday's slate from an NCAA tourney perspective was all women, two games both featuring star players, not to mention a rematch of last year's Iowa-LSU championship game.

It was a perfect storm. Even in defeat, Reese understood the magnitude of the moment.

“I think it’s just great for the sport, just being able to be a part of history,” Reese said Monday night. “Like I said, no matter which way it went tonight, I know this was going to be a night for the ages. And just being able to be a part of history is great.”

Clark is the biggest name in the college game; she set the NCAA all-time scoring record earlier this season and has become a full-fledged celebrity, starring in national commercials and commanding media attention like no one else. After the Boston Celtics beat the Charlotte Hornets on Monday, they tuned in for the end of the Iowa-LSU game.

“Caitlin Clark is stealing the show of basketball," Celtics forward Sam Hauser said.

To Zoe Pawloski, Clark was just someone to share the weight room with. Pawloski used to swim for Iowa and her team would lift at the same time Clark's team would work out.

“I never sat down and watched March Madness on TV until Caitlin Clark," said Pawloski, who watched the game with a few dozen other Iowa fans in a bar in Council Bluffs, Iowa. "It’s really cool how much she’s grown basketball, and people knowing Iowa the school makes me really happy. Iowa is on the map.”

Not a lot of people were at the movies in Waukee, Iowa, on Monday night. There probably won't be a lot of moviegoers there on Friday, either — that's when the women's Final Four starts.

At The Palms Theater in Waukee, about 200 people showed up to watch Clark play on a 75-foot screen. It was a private party put together by Dowling Catholic High School, her alma mater. And let's just say the game was far more popular than the movies on other screens.

“Not even close," said Alison Meyer, the theater's general manager. “Nope, nope, nope. It's pretty big-time when you have an Iowa team playing, let alone somebody from our hometown.”

The games didn't disappoint. The stars didn't disappoint, either. Clark had 41 points and 12 assists, plus she tied a tournament record with nine 3-pointers. Reese had 17 points and 20 rebounds. Bueckers had 28 points and 10 rebounds. Watkins had 29 points and 10 rebounds.

“It's been a great ride,” Watkins said.

And for the game, it was a great night.

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AP Sports Writers Eric Olson in Council Bluffs, Iowa; Steve Reed in Charlotte, North Carolina; and Mark Anderson in Las Vegas contributed to this report.

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AP March Madness bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-womens-bracket/ and coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness

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