SAN ANTONIO — Don’t you feel silly now, NCAA.
March Madness began with the uproar over the NCAA’s blatant disregard of women’s basketball, Mark Emmert and his cronies apparently believing it to be an extracurricular activity rather than an actual sport. It is finishing with the women’s tournament showing itself to be superior to the men’s event for competitiveness, quality of play and pure watchability.
Since the mayhem of the first- and second rounds, the most compelling games have occurred in the women’s tournament. The Baylor-Michigan finish. The Baylor-UConn finish. Indiana’s takedown of N.C. State. South Carolina’s defensive clinic against Texas. Stanford coming back from the dead against Louisville.
And, even before the games are played, I’m going to predict that the men’s Final Four won’t be as captivating as the women’s was Friday night. There’s no way it could be after Aari McDonald and Arizona did their best Arya Stark impressions against UConn, and Haley Jones’ “Oh my God!” shot – her whole performance, really – that lifted Stanford into the title game.
The Cardinal and Arizona play for the title Sunday night (6 p.m. ET, ESPN).
“The fact so many of these games have been really close, and good games in general, is really big for the women’s game as a whole,” Stanford’s Ashten Prechtel said Saturday. “I think it really shows the disparities are not necessary, and the women’s game deserves the same respect as the men’s game.”
While the keyboard warriors who hide their own insecurity behind misogynistic insults will take any opportunity to trash the women’s game, it has always been the ignorant or oblivious decision-makers, often men, who have done the most damage.
Emmert either didn’t realize or didn’t care that the women’s tournament was still being treated as a sideshow, so neither did the people below him. Television executives parked games on remote channels, never considering there would be a mainstream audience for them. Marketing executives failed to see that a Sue Bird or a Megan Rapinoe could sell jerseys and products, too.
Which is why the way this tournament has played out has been so important.
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The women were furious, though not surprised, by the disparities. But after their initial anger and demands for change, they let their game speak for them. And, as anyone who has actually paid attention to women’s basketball before last month could have predicted, it has not disappointed.
“When we were making it look so easy, I tried to tell people this is really hard, and nobody believed me,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said Friday night. “And they’re not getting any easier.”
While Gonzaga and Baylor have rolled through the men’s tournament as expected, a meeting in Monday night’s title game seeming almost inevitable, the women’s tournament has been raucous and unpredictable. The days of being able to pencil in UConn, or Tennessee before that, as the national champion are over. For a fourth consecutive tournament, there will be a new national champion. Over that time, nine different teams have made the Final Four.
Yes, overall No. 1 seed Stanford reached the title game, but not without several scares, including needing that last-second shot by Jones to get past South Carolina. Almost nobody outside the Tucson metropolitan area would have predicted Arizona making its first title game, let alone getting there in such convincing fashion.
Along the way, the country has been introduced to players like McDonald, Jones, Zia Cooke, Anna Wilson (you might have seen her brother a time or two on the broadcasts), Dana Evans, DiJonai Carrington and several others. They might not be dunking, but I dare you to watch South Carolina’s Aliyah Boston dominate the paint and not be similarly entertained.
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“There is very clear inequality and it’s very obvious that things have to change. But I did not want that to be the focus of the tournament because there is good basketball,” Arizona coach Adia Barnes said. “I’m glad it shifted to quality games. It’s shifted to the basketball, which I’m very, very happy for.
“When there’s good product, good basketball, people watch,” Barnes added.
And in what will surely be a disappointment to those who insist “no one” watches the women’s game, the numbers back Barnes up.
Ratings for the Sweet 16 were up a whopping 66 percent from 2019, the last time the tournament was played, with the Iowa-UConn game, aka Paige Bueckers vs Caitlin Clark, drawing 1.6 million viewers alone. The Elite Eight ratings were up 8 percent despite going head-to-head against the men’s tournament, with Baylor-UConn watched by 1.7 million.
“We put a product on the floor that, if you give us a chance, you can be proud of,” South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said Friday night. “Women who can flat-out shoot the ball, create space for rebounding, dribble the basketball. … All the things that happen in any game played on any court.
“But sometimes we have a willingness to just look at women and think we can’t play,” Staley added. “Well, you’re missing out. You’re missing out on some great basketball.”
It would have seemed unfathomable three weeks ago, but the women’s game has emerged as the big winner from this year’s NCAA tournaments. If you still can’t see that, that’s your loss.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.