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EDITORIAL: Women's basketball goes to whole new level

Apr. 12—We get it: Purdue men's basketball made it to the Final Four and that was center stage here in Indiana.

But there was a close — and we mean CLOSE — second.

This year, it was the women who stole the spotlight on the annual basketball tournament. And it doesn't appear they plan to give it back anytime soon.

Sunday's women's NCAA championship game that saw South Carolina beat Caitlin Clark and the Iowa Hawkeyes averaged 18.9 million viewers, which made it the most-watched non-Olympic women's sporting event on television in U.S. history. The audience peaked in the final 15 minutes at 24.1 million viewers.

And 14.2 million viewers tuned into Friday's women's basketball matchup between Iowa and UConn. The previous record? The 12.3 million viewers who tuned in April 1 for the Iowa-LSU women's game in the Elite Eight.

In fact, the five March Madness games featuring Clark on ESPN and ABC averaged 10.07 million viewers.

While Clark couldn't lead the Hawkeyes to a win in the championship game over undefeated South Carolina, it wasn't for lack of effort. Clark scored 30 points, which included a championship-record 18 in the first quarter alone. As she now heads to the WNBA, Clark finished her time at Iowa as the career leading scorer in NCAA Division I history — men and women — with 3,951 points.

Dawn Staley, head coach of South Carolina, made sure to draw attention to what we all have been witness to throughout Clark's career after the Gamecocks put an exclamation point on their perfect season Sunday: Clark has made women's basketball more than what it was.

"I personally want to thank Caitlin Clark for lifting up our sport. She carried a heavy load for our sport," Staley said after defeating Iowa. "Caitlin Clark, if you're out there, you're one of the GOATs of our game. We appreciate you."

And speaking of GOATs, NBA legend LeBron James is among those taking notice.

"If you don't rock with Caitlin Clark game you're just a FLAT OUT HATER!!!!!" he wrote on X, formerly Twitter, on Sunday.

While Clark and LSU's Angel Reese have become household names in their college careers, they aren't the only names to know in women's college basketball. Do yourself a favor and watch highlights of Southern California's Juju Watkins, Notre Dame's Hannah Hidalgo and UConn's Paige Bueckers.

And the court isn't the only place to catch these stars. Reese, Clark and Bueckers, along with LSU's Flau'jae Johnson, can be found on the screen in commercials for everything from insurance to sports drinks and shoes.

Once a college standout herself, Brittney Griner, who was part of the stellar 2013 WNBA draft class that included Elena Delle Donne and Skylar Diggins-Smith, discussed her appreciation for Clark on Friday while at USA Basketball practice.

"It's like there's been a lot of great talent, but some of the stuff Caitlin is doing is on a ... another level," Griner said. "There's always been excitement and great players, but I just think the coverage wasn't there like it is now and that's great to see to tell more of the stories."

As Clark and Reese both now move on to the WNBA, their stories are far from over. As luck will have it, Clark's future is likely to unfold in the Hoosier State, where the Indiana Fever have the first pick in April 16's WNBA draft.