A love letter to basketball, by Caitlin, Angel, Paige and JuJu

ALBANY, N.Y. — Iowa fans crammed into the lower bowl after Caitlin Clark led the Hawkeyes back to the Final Four on Monday night, holding their signs and T-shirts and programs and Sharpies, all dressed in black or gold or a combination of both.

One young fan stood front and center, proudly holding up her sign: “Never Been a Sweeter Time to be a Hawkeye. Let’s go Hawks!”

She is asked: “Did the game live up to the hype?”

“Yes!” she said.

For 40 minutes, Iowa and LSU showcased the best of women’s basketball, a transcendent night for a sport starting to fill with transcendent nights. If Round 1 in the national championship game a year ago was a historic moment, the rematch Monday night was just as epic.

From the opening tip, it felt as if the large Iowa contingent would blow the roof off MVP Arena, its shouts rising with each made Clark 3-pointer or pretty bounce pass in the lane. LSU countered each time, with Angel Reese making plays in the paint, blocking shots, rising to the occasion the way we have seen so many times.

The energy buzzed across the arena, and when the first half ended with the score tied at 45, you just wanted them to keep going, for them to keep playing into infinity and beyond. Clark opened the second half and kept hitting 3s, LSU powerless to stop her. She kept going this way, never relenting, and the crowd all around her ate it up — understanding there would be only a few more of these moments to grasp and savor.

With 4:45 left, Clark hit another 3, then pounded her chest and looked at the crowd. “I just got hyped for a second,” she admitted afterward.

Whether the players understood it or not, this was a love letter to basketball.

“You’re playing for a little more with the Final Four on the line, but to me I’m not thinking, ‘Oh, my God, there’s 15 million people at home watching this game right now,'” Clark said. “That’s not what’s happening. It’s like, what can I do for my team to help me win the game right now?”

Those 41 points she scored helped her win the game, but it probably also helped draw those millions of fans who tuned in. Though LSU lost, Reese described the game as “going to be a night for the ages.” Hailey Van Lith said, “It was an honor to be in that moment.”

As the Iowa and LSU players spoke during their postgame news conference, across the country USC and UConn put on their own show — rising freshman star JuJu Watkins and resurgent All-American Paige Bueckers going back and forth themselves. Watkins brought the Trojans back to relevance, but Bueckers and the Huskies — the winningest program in women’s basketball — clinched yet another Final Four

Their play overshadowed a fiasco with the 3-point line that the NCAA corrected in time for tipoff. By the end of the night, nobody was talking about that. Instead, they were already looking ahead to the Final Four.

Clark versus Bueckers in yet another matchup filled with star power and intrigue. Bueckers was the best freshman in the country in 2021 and seemed nearly destined to win a championship. Her first two NCAA tournament trips ended in disappointment; then last season, she tore an ACL and missed the entire season. Her absence, in part, allowed much of the national attention to turn to Clark, who has delivered every step of the way.

South Carolina and NC State await on the other side of the bracket, with their own epic storylines. The Gamecocks head into the Final Four undefeated for the second consecutive season. NC State, picked to finish eighth in the preseason ACC poll, returns after 26 years.

On Friday, it’s Dawn Staley and the Gamecocks seeking their third title in seven years versus Wes Moore and the Wolfpack still seeking their first.

It’s Bueckers, the player of the year in 2021, versus Clark, the player of the year the past two seasons.

As hard as it is to imagine a game more hyped than Iowa-LSU on Monday night, the national semifinals will give the nation another reason to keep watching.

This post was originally published on ESPN

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