Caitlin and Angel. Jojo and Paige. A stellar day for women's basketball

ALBANY, N.Y. — It truly feels like Christmas morning.

There's no other accurate way to describe the level of anticipation here ahead of the Elite Eight matchup between Iowa-LSU, a rematch of last year's record-setting national championship game that featured the sport's two biggest stars in Caitlin Clark and Angel Reyes. But that's not all that happens. JuJu Watkins and USC will face Paige Bueckers and UConn in Portland as the nightcap.

Four stars. There are two berths to the Final Four at stake. A day of making history for women's basketball.

“If I was a basketball fan, I would be glued to the TV,” Clark said.

“I give you credit for the viewing numbers,” USC head coach Lindsay Gottlieb said. “It will crush everything.”

Although both games will be broadcast on ESPN, not ABC, it seems likely that at least one will be- cough, Iowa vs. LSU – will break the viewership record for a non-Final Four game in the women's NCAA Tournament. Iowa's win over West Virginia in the second round last weekend broke the previous record (set two days before the Hokies' first-round win over Holy Cross) by averaging 4.9 million viewers. You could make a convincing case that Monday's rematch is the most anticipated game in women's basketball since the 2004 championship game between UConn and Tennessee. Or at least, it's the most anticipated women's match since last year.

As we all know, the last time Clark and Reese faced off, 9.9 million viewers watched. So, yes, people will be interested in a rematch. But they should stick around to see the stars in the second half of the doubleheader, too.

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As a redshirt freshman in the 2020-21 season, Bueckers earned all three National Player of the Year awards. Then, she suffered a knee injury that forced her to miss two months of the following season, and a torn ACL kept her out for the entire 2022-23 season. Now, she's healthy (even though many others on her team aren't!) and back in amazing shape, facing off against this year's freshman sensation in Watkins. They will likely share top billing as the sport's biggest stars next season.

“Star power is what drives narratives in athletics,” Gottlieb said. He added: “This is why the NBA took off, when there were faces of it, going back to Magic (Johnson), Larry (Bird) and then Michael Jordan.”

The 2023 championship bout between Clark and Reese has received similarities to the 1979 Magic-Bird men's title game. It seemed like a watershed moment for the sport, but a year later, it's probably more accurate to call it just the beginning. It introduced millions of people to two superstars and talked shit about, gave us new competition and then brought all the key players back into the sport for another season. Then, Bueckers returned from her knee injury, and an incredibly talented new class emerged in places like Columbia, South Carolina; South Bend, Indiana; and Austin, Texas. Watkins even stood out among this talented crowd.

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“Both Paige and JuJu have been able to have amazing seasons, and I've been able to watch as much as I can,” Clark said. “I'm very busy, but I love running it as much as I can — especially JuJu. What she's been able to do for this program as a freshman to come in and lead them to the Elite Eight with a chance to go to the Final Four is unreal, unheard of. She's pretty special.”

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“Women's basketball fans know how special and amazing this moment will be. I think the viewing numbers will show that. … More than anything else, it's great for our game. I'm lucky to be a part of it.”

UConn coach Geno Auriemma noted that one advantage the women's game has over the men's right now is the lack of a singles rule. Players have to stay until they graduate (or until they turn 22 for that season's WNBA draft) and fans recognize them. We can see these players growing up before our eyes.

“They are the kids who have been there for three or four years and left their mark on their school and their sport,” he said. “It can showcase all that is possible if everyone buys in, stays there and grows with their team.”

There is, of course, one very popular coach and one very successful program missing from Monday's two must-watch games: Dawn Staley and her undefeated South Carolina Gamecocks. They have already punched their ticket to Cleveland after beating Oregon State in Albany on Sunday to advance to the Final Four alongside third-seeded NC State, which won in Portland. The only two teams remaining on site in Albany are Iowa and LSU.

So, no one is talking about South Carolina on Monday, which is good for Staley.

“Come on, take the lights and put them somewhere else,” Staley said with a smile. “Let this team continue to thrive in their space. Hopefully at the end of the day, next week this time, we give a lot of people a lot to talk about.”

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“Now that we've won, I'm going to sit back and enjoy it like everyone else. Probably millions and millions of people are going to enjoy this game, and I'll be one of them. I don't have Nielsen ratings in my house, but you can count on me to watch that game.”

(Photos by Angel Reese, Caitlin Clark, Paige Bakers and Jojo Watkins: Greg Nelson/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images, Steve Chambers/Getty Images, Jayne Kamen Onsia/Getty Images)

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