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Viewpoint | Caitlin Clark and Angel Reese had everyone watching. Better fasten your seat belt.

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ALBANY, N.Y. — Late Monday night in downtown Albany, three fans in black set out in search of a real celebration. Their team and their hero had won the long-awaited rematch of women’s basketball’s defining moment, and so this trio walked down the middle of Howard Street, huffing and puffing as they climbed the undulating asphalt. On the corner, beer was waiting.

“Everyone is jumping on our…bandwagon,” one fan lamented to her friends.

She wasn’t talking about the Iowa Hawkeyes. She was talking about women’s hoops.

Long after Iowa toppled defending champion LSU Monday night, a 94-87 thrill ride that at times felt like it should have required a seat belt, a crowd lingered in the bowl lower part of the MVP Arena. The Hawkeyes had secured their second straight Final Four berth, getting some reward after LSU triumphed over them in last year’s title game. So the fans stuck around and cheered as the players cut and then held up their spoils of the evening, shredded pieces of nylon netting. It sounded like a roar when Caitlin Clark raised hers.

It wasn’t just Iowa City’s best who filled the postgame crowd. Actor Jason Sudeikis was allowed through the yellow ropes and stood on the field to take photos with guard Kate Martin’s family, for goodness sake. He was wearing a gray hoodie. On the back it read: “Everyone watches women’s sports.”

But as he walked down a sleepy street, having shared his passion with millions of others watching the titanic game on ESPN, one of the three Iowa fans must have felt alarmed.

“I’m glad more people like women’s basketball, because they used to have fun with it,” she said, walking up the street but looking back to the not-so-distant past.

The OGs of women’s basketball need to make room at their club as more and more people, maybe even reformed haters, barge in and prop their feet up like they own the place. They are there for the good things. These newbies realize that Clark might be an even better passer than a sloppy shooter. But when a sport grows in popularity, as women’s college basketball has over the past year, guards can’t always protect their game from the downsides of growth.

On Monday, Angel Reese wore a sparkling tiara on the field during the starters’ introductions. She’s a star, so the crown was for show. If she had been more honest with her accessories, Reese might have chosen to wear a target.

Since winning the title in 2023 and becoming one of the most talked about athletes in America, Reese has had an equally luxurious year in the light of fame and being sung by it. Her “You can’t see me” taunt in the final moments of the championship game and her trademark “Bayou Barbie” could have opened the door to a multitude of name, image and likeness deals and an exponential number of followers on social media – today’s currency. . But some of these new eyes scrutinizing women’s football and its stars were also waiting for Reese to fall. (Or watch if she and her teammates would stand during the national anthem.)

The loss to Iowa didn’t make Reese cry. When she fouled out with less than two minutes left — after scoring 17 points and grabbing 20 rebounds while hampered by an ankle injury — she was steady and stoic as she walked down the sideline . But as she sat atop a dais and listened to teammates Flau’jae Johnson and then Hailey Van Lith come to her defense, Reese sniffled and wiped away tears.

“I’ve been through so much,” Reese said, his voice breaking. “I’ve seen so much. I have been attacked so many times, threatened with death. I’ve been sexualized, I’ve been threatened, I’ve done so many things and I stood my ground every time. I just try to defend my teammates because I don’t want them to see me badly and not be there for them. I just want them to always know that I’m still human.

During this somber press conference, cheers sometimes spread through the hallway. Another Hawkeye was cutting the net.

From the way this game was promoted and anticipated, one would think that only Clark would be allowed to touch the scissors. Although Iowa plays fast and delights purists with its buffet of backslashes — just a fun style of basketball — the attention off the court follows Clark, and not so much her teammates. Stars determine leagues and TV ratings, but it seems the networks have little confidence in the attention spans of the sport’s new fans. So little that they rely on the more easily digestible scenarios of one player versus another, and blow up the antics that happen in the heat of battle. Other sports have become accustomed to this game. Women’s basketball is still in the adaptation phase.

Yet this rematch lived up to the hype, both overall and in social media-sized clips. In the rush of the first quarter, with Iowa and LSU trading threes and momentum, Clark scored or assisted on 15 of his team’s first 17 points. His deep shots came in a pile, three in the first three minutes of the second half, one shareable clip after another. Van Lith played the role of unwitting foil when she shrugged desperately after Clark stood up in front of her to make one of his nine three-pointers. Naturally, Van Lith’s discouragement served as a punchline on social media.

But Clark didn’t need to retaliate by running his hand over his face, as Reese did a year ago in one of the moments that made last year’s clash a sensation. Sudeikis took care of it. ESPN cameras caught the actor – he’s a fan of the WNBA’s New York Liberty, not a fan of women’s hoops – as he join in the “You Can’t See Me” celebration.

In the final minute, with Iowa’s victory in hand, Clark was more subdued. She calmed the crowd behind the Iowa bench who shouted “Let’s Go Hawks!” » chants before the free throws of his teammate Sydney Affolter. Later, toward the conclusion of his 41-point, 12-assist, seven-rebound masterpiece, Clark flashed a heart toward the crowd and gave a thumbs-up to someone across the LSU bench.

“We didn’t even guard her last year when we beat them,” LSU coach Kim Mulkey said of Clark. “She’s just a generational player, and she makes everyone around her better. That’s what grown-ups do.

A generational player from a very good team beat the champions in a prime-time match, in front of everyone’s eyes and on everyone’s commentary, for better or for worse. Looks like growth.

Late in the evening, the Hawkeyes – the ones you’ve heard of and the ones you haven’t – triumphantly climbed that ladder to play with scissors and secure their memories. The most loyal fans were waiting to watch. One of them later went with her friends to a nearby brewery, wondering if Also a lot of people are watching now. Growth, sometimes, is scary.

Everyone watches women’s sports. And talks about women’s sport, publishes articles on women’s sport and brings its own program regarding women’s sport. Players who were once known only as diehards now become targets, characters, even caricatures. These are the growing pains when a game attracts a new legion of fans. They’re still piling on that bullet train, and everyone might want to buckle up.

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