With an average of 9.9 million viewers and a peak of 12.6 million, the 2023 NCAA women’s basketball national championship was the most viewed NCAA women’s game ever, according to ESPN.
This comes only three years after all women’s tournament games started to air on national TV and were scheduled with staggered game times. With these changes, the women’s tournament has finally become equitable to the men’s in regard to access, according to the Associated Press.
Although a poll on The Breeze’s Instagram showed that only 21 out of 49 respondents watched the championship game, this certainly doesn’t match the rising trend of women's basketball popularity.
The teams and players in this tournament made just as much history as the national championship game, making it a turning point in women's basketball.
Louisiana State University (LSU)
LSU took home the national championship April 2 in its game against Iowa, the first national title in LSU basketball history.
It wouldn’t have been able to do it without two transfers: Angel Reese and Alexis Morris.
The NCAA transfer portal has allowed college basketball to develop drastically since a rule change in April 2021, which permits student-athletes to transfer colleges without penalty. Previously, players had to sit out one year, but now, they’re eligible to play immediately.
This served as a big advantage to LSU.
Also known as the “Bayou Barbie,” Angel Reese is a sophomore transfer from Maryland. This season, she set the record for most double-doubles, 34, in a single season for NCAA basketball, according to Just Women’s Sports on Twitter.
She’s also setting the precedent for college athletes through Name Image & Likeness (NIL) deals. Through these brand deals, she’s one of the highest-paid college athletes right now — her earnings are estimated at $1.3 million, compared to $370,000 before winning the national championship, according to Sports Illustrated.
Making a name and brand for herself, while being a phenomenal record-breaking basketball player, Angel Reese is setting a new standard for women's college basketball players.
In a press conference after the national championship game, Reese said she thinks she helped grow women’s basketball this year. She faced backlash over her competitive game talk but said she’ll continue to be unapologetically herself for the people who look like her.
What makes Alexis Morris so special is her story. Not only did she score 21 points in the championship game with an average of 15.4 for the season, but she also faced a lot of adversity to get there.
Alexis Morris played for Kim Mulkey — the LSU women’s basketball coach — during her freshman year at Baylor, but was dismissed from the team. Her sophomore year she went to Rutgers, transferred to Texas A&M her junior year and finally ended up at LSU, back with Mulkey, for her senior year.
“At one point when I left Rutgers, I wasn’t even going to play basketball anymore,” Morris said to Sports Illustrated. “So this moment is literally everything to me. I am the comeback kid. I went through so much adversity. The world counted me out. Media writing bad posts, portraying this image of me. Now I can just let it all go. I beat it. I beat the odds.”
In the 2023 WNBA draft, the Connecticut Sun drafted Morris with the 22nd overall pick.
Players like Morris are cultivating perseverance in the next generation of women's basketball players.
Flau’jae Johnson is finishing up her freshman year at LSU but heavily contributed to the Tigers, even as a younger player; she averaged 11 points and 5.9 rebounds per game. Johnson isn’t only successful on the court but she’s also making a name for herself in the music industry.
According to The Washington Post, Johnson's a rapper signed to Roc Nation and has even been on "America’s Got Talent." Trying to fulfill her father’s dreams, who passed away before she was born, Johnson leads with passion, determination and talent.
She aims to continue in basketball and music, being great in whatever she does and inspiring many along the way.
Caitlin Clark’s a junior at Iowa and one of the best college basketball players of all time.
The numbers speak for themselves: Clark finished the NCAA tournament with 191 points and 60 assists — more in both categories than anyone who’s ever played in the women’s tournament. She averaged 31.8 points, 10.0 assists and 5.2 rebounds in taking the Hawkeyes to the title game.
Clark also won “all of the major Player of the Year awards” in women’s basketball, including the Wooden Award and the Naismith Trophy according to ESPN.
After losing the national championship, Clark said this through tears in an interview posted by March Madness on YouTube:
“I want my legacy to be the impact I can have on young kids, and the people in the state of Iowa. And I hope I brought them a lot of joy this season — I hope this team brought them a lot of joy … And I was just that young girl, so, all you have to do is dream and you can be in moments like this.”
Watch any video of Clark playing and you’ll understand the enormous impact she’s had, and will continue to have, in women’s basketball.
The South Carolina women’s basketball team was projected to win the NCAA tournament this year, but they were upset by Clark and the Hawkeyes in the Final Four.
However, this loss doesn’t cover up the fact that South Carolina’s a phenomenal team; it won the national title last year and entered the Final Four on a 36-game winning streak.
At the 2023 WNBA draft, the Gamecocks had five players drafted: Aliyah Boston (1st overall pick), Laeticia Amihere (8th), Zia Cooke (10th), Brea Beal (24th) and Victaria Saxton (25th).
This season, Aliyah Boston was named Naismith Women’s Defensive Player of the Year for the second year in a row and also won the Naismith Trophy last year.
According to Sports Illustrated, at age 12, Boston and her sister moved away from their parents and home in the U.S. Virgin Islands to pursue basketball in Massachusetts.
Boston made sure this sacrifice paid off.
“Her work ethic paved the way for her success on the court. It was built on the work she puts in behind closed doors,” South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley said to Sports Illustrated.
Bringing it home
JMU women’s basketball also had a historic season. In its first year in the Sun Belt, the Dukes brought home a conference championship.
This year, the Dukes made their 13th appearance in the NCAA tournament — their first trip since 2016.
JMU’s leading scorer Kiki Jefferson, who won the Sun Belt Player of the Year, entered the transfer portal for her final year of eligibility. ESPN ranked her No. 8 out of players in the portal.
On Monday, Jefferson announced her commitment to play at the University of Louisville next season. On Twitter, she wrote, “Card Nation What’s Up? #committed.”
She’s a much-needed addition to the team, as Louisville’s leading scorer Hailey Van Lith entered the transfer portal shortly after the Cardinals’ loss in the Elite Eight.
There are many other history-makers such as Maddie Siegrist, Haley Jones and Georgia Amoore who’ve worked to progress women’s basketball, especially during this year’s NCAA Tournament.
With so many inspiring team and player narratives, women’s basketball isn’t only gathering more fans and attention but it’s also establishing role models for the next generation of women’s basketball players.