Angel Reese, Caitlin Clark and more: Top women’s college basketball moments that fueled our fandom in 2023

LSU went from surprise NCAA champion to mounting questions surrounding Angel Reese’s absence, while UConn’s end of an era also highlighted the year

The top women's college basketball moments that fueled our fandom in 2023 included Angel Reese and Caitlin Clark, the record viewership numbers and an undefeated South Carolina season. (Illustration by Taylor Wilhelm/Yahoo Sports)

The top women’s college basketball moments that fueled our fandom in 2023 included Angel Reese and Caitlin Clark, the record viewership numbers and an undefeated South Carolina season. (Illustration by Taylor Wilhelm/Yahoo Sports)
Women’s college basketball had plenty of moments that fueled our fandom in 2023, from LSU’s rise to Caitlin Clark to UConn’s fall. Here are the top moments of 2023.

Rise of LSU

LSU made quite an impact in 2023. From the Lady Tigers bursting into the Final Four and winning the national championship with a team comprised mainly of transfers to the star of that run, Angel Reese, being mysteriously absent for four games early in the 2023-24 season, this was certainly the year of LSU.

After the 2022-23 season success, LSU landed two additional key transfers in Hailey Van Lith from Louisville and Aneesah Morrow from DePaul. But the Lady Tigers’ 2023-24 season started off rocky, with a loss to Colorado in the season opener. Four games into the season, Reese was benched without explanation, only to return in time for the Final Four rematch against Virginia Tech. Not long after that, Kateri Poole was “no longer with us,” according to head coach Kim Mulkey.

LSU is currently ranked No. 7 in the AP Top 25 poll, with a 12-1 record. A repeat championship isn’t out of the question in 2024.

LSU's Angel Reese is back after missing four games earlier this season. (Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images)

LSU’s Angel Reese is back after missing four games earlier this season. (Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images)
From April after LSU won the national championship:

DALLAS — In the national championship game between Iowa and LSU, featuring standouts Caitlin Clark and Angel Reese, it was a reserve without a single point in the past three games who stole the show.

That’s just the way March Madness, this LSU team and even this entire college basketball season have gone. The commonality tying it all together is that graduate guard Jasmine Carson, who led LSU with a clutch 22 of the team’s championship-game-record 102 points, is a transfer who wasn’t even on the Tigers squad this time last year. Barely any player on this title team was on the roster a year ago.

Nine new pieces came into summer workouts, already a question for success, and LSU played one of the easiest nonconference schedules in the country, perking more questions. The SEC was critiqued in the regular season for having a down year, so the Tigers’ undefeated run up until the loss to 2022 champion South Carolina was dismissed as unimpressive. A late-game misstep against Tennessee signaled what many believed: The Tigers weren’t battle-tested.

That single test appeared to be all they needed.

“Take advantage of the opportunity. That’s what we did,” Kateri Poole said on the court after cutting her first national championship nets, a 102-85 win in hand over the nation’s best offense and National Player of the Year. “We didn’t let up.”

They’re undoubtedly unlikely champions. Reese herself said, “We’re not supposed to be here, and I don’t care what anybody says, we’re not,” the morning before the final. LSU coach Kim Mulkey opened the week by wondering if they were “feeding the monster” too early by reaching the Final Four in her second season as head coach.

The Caitlin Clark Effect

LSU’s rise coincided and collided with Iowa’s Caitlin Clark. Clark has notched 13 career triple-doubles, including a 40-point one to propel Iowa into the 2023 Final Four. She was named the Naismith Player of the Year as the Hawkeyes carved their way through the NCAA tournament, knocking off previously unbeaten South Carolina to face LSU in the national championship game. The budding rivalry between Clark and Reese drew record viewership in the title game.

In the 2023-24 season, Clark is on pace to set the Division I women’s scoring record, currently held by Kelsey Plum at 3,527 career points. She could also reach the all-time Division I scoring record held by LSU legend Pete Maravich at 3,667 points. Clark surpassed the 3,000-point mark for her career this month.

Clark is projected to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2024 WNBA Draft — if she decides to forgo her COVID-19 season in college. The Indiana Fever earned the right to draft No. 1 for the second straight year by winning the draft lottery earlier this month. If the stars align, Clark could pair with 2023 No. 1 pick Aliyah Boston in Indianapolis.

Iowa guard Caitlin Clark interacts with fans after a game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa, on Nov. 19, 2023. (Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images)

Iowa guard Caitlin Clark interacts with fans after a game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa, on Nov. 19, 2023. (Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images)
From March during Iowa’s NCAA tournament run:

DALLAS — Iowa’s players are living a dream.

Gabbie Marshall’s Snapchat memories reminded her she was with her AAU team at the 2018 Final Four when Arike Ogunbowale hit those buzzer-beaters for Notre Dame. Monika Czinano remembers idolizing Lindsay Whalen, “a god” in her home state of Minnesota who took the Gophers to their only Final Four appearance. Caitlin Clark dreamed of this when she was a little kid, stayed home to do it and received a text from her mom, Anne, on Wednesday that said she felt like she was “stuck in your dream.”

Five years later, they’re the ones running out to cheers during open practices on Thursday at American Airlines Center. The Hawkeyes faithful who have traveled well from Iowa City to Seattle and down to Dallas roared for each name, but none louder than Clark, their newly named Naismith and Associated Press Player of the Year award winner for whom the spotlight continues to widen.

It’s tough to say Clark’s profile has risen in the past week, given it started the season so high, but it has. The 6-foot junior point guard plays some of her best games against the highest competition. She dropped a record 41-point triple-double in an Elite Eight game. Her logo 3-pointers are shared far beyond the women’s basketball circles. While the men’s tournament heads into its big weekend sans any big names, college basketball fans are turning to the women’s game for their star power.

It can be a lot, particularly as women’s basketball’s profile continues its sharp ascension. When Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder was asked what people could expect from Clark against the best in the nation, No. 1 overall seed South Carolina, she said she really just wanted to “take the pressure off of Caitlin.”

Steady as South Carolina

The Gamecocks nearly had a dream season in 2022-23. They rolled through the season undefeated (32-0, 16-0 SEC) and held the AP No. 1 ranking throughout. The 2022 champions finished their first undefeated regular season in program history with seven wins against teams in the NET top 25. Behind Boston, the Gamecocks had incredible depth and were the favorites to repeat as champions.

Heading into the tournament, the seniors had lost nine games total in their collegiate careers, with a No. 1 ranking as freshmen when the NCAA tournament was canceled, three Final Four berths and a title. They fell short of another title in 2023, running into Iowa and Clark in the national semifinals. Boston went on to be drafted No. 1 overall by the WNBA’s Fever.

South Carolina's Aliyah Boston dribbles the ball against Iowa during the 2023 NCAA tournament Final Four. (Photo by Greg Nelson /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)

South Carolina’s Aliyah Boston dribbles the ball against Iowa during the 2023 NCAA tournament Final Four. (Photo by Greg Nelson /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)
From March during the NCAA tournament:

They call themselves the “freshies” even though little is new to the South Carolina seniors anymore. They’ve been ranked No. 1 in the country for two-thirds of their collegiate careers. They’ve been to each Final Four available to them. They won a national championship. They’ve gone undefeated in the regular season.

Aliyah Boston, Zia Cooke, Laeticia Amihere, Brea Beal and Olivia Thompson have lost a mere eight games in their four-year Gamecock careers, and they don’t plan to lose another. The quintet came as the first No. 1 recruiting class in program history and will leave as the most decorated. A second trophy would cement their powerhouse status further and put them in the company of Connecticut, Tennessee and USC as the only programs to repeat.

When their defense is the best, it leads to the most success. They rank fourth in scoring defense (51.1 ppg) and second in defensive rating (73.0) for the second consecutive season. That’s already nasty, in the words of head coach Dawn Staley amid their NCAA championship run last March.

What would make South Carolina even nastier? An offense so potent it has never been seen in Columbia during Staley’s tenure. A bench bigger than the starting five at other programs scoring nearly as many points as its starters. A focus to be even better.

“I think South Carolina has a whole other level to us,” Cooke, named an Associated Press All-American on Wednesday, said. “And it’s gonna show.”

Few teams can match up with the Gamecocks in a tournament that’s theirs to lose. As the No. 1 overall seed, they have the easiest bracket in Greenville 1. Yet nothing is guaranteed in March, and there are contenders to end the freshies’ careers early, if they don’t choose to return for a fifth year allowed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fall of UConn

It was a tough year for UConn. The Huskies suffered through an injury-filled 2022-23 season, entering the season without former National Player of the Year Paige Bueckers (ACL) and star recruit Ice Brady (patella), leaving 10 players rostered. Azzi Fudd carried the Huskies offensively and became an early candidate for Player of the Year awards until injuring her right knee. She missed eight games over about six weeks of action, and in Fudd’s second game back Jan. 15, she reinjured her knee and did not play until March 4.

While she was out, UConn was forced to postpone its game against St. John’s on Jan. 8 because it did not have the conference minimum of eight available players. Junior forward Aaliyah Edwards (foot), freshman Ayanna Patterson (concussion) and sophomore Caroline Ducharme (concussion) were also out due to injury.

The Huskies’ 14-season Final Four streak finally ended unceremoniously as Ohio State overwhelmed UConn in the Sweet 16. It marked the first time since 2005 that the Huskies didn’t reach the Elite Eight.

The Huskies were ready to put all of that behind them to start the 2023-24 season, but it wasn’t that easy. Another rash of injuries cropped up, and Fudd was lost for the season after tearing her ACL and meniscus. And now the question looms: Is the UConn dynasty over?

UConn's Paige Bueckers and Azzi Fudd watch the team warm up before the game against Georgetown Hoyas on Feb. 11, 2023. (Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images)

UConn’s Paige Bueckers and Azzi Fudd watch the team warm up before the game against Georgetown Hoyas on Feb. 11, 2023. (Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images)
From November after Fudd’s season-ending injuries:

Connecticut came into the season poised to contend for another title with what on paper was the most talented roster in the game. It came with a caveat of health after injuries throughout the roster torpedoed their title chances last season.

The caveat is no more.

The Huskies will be without one of their No. 1 recruits for a second consecutive season due to injury. The program announced that Azzi Fudd is out for the year with a torn ACL and medial meniscus tear in her right knee. It’s a jolt to not only the Huskies’ 2024 title chances but also their teetering stance atop women’s college basketball’s current powerhouses.

For years, the 11-time national champions have remained on the doorstep of another title, even as more powers join them there with parity and talent growing. Now, UConn’s dynasty era might have finally closed even if the Huskies can win a 12th title this season.

Fudd, the No. 1 recruit in the 2021 class, and Paige Bueckers, the top recruit in the 2020 class, were the young stars meant to take UConn back to a title. The Huskies haven’t won since 2016, when Breanna Stewart won her fourth in four years. It’s the longest drought of head coach Geno Auriemma’s tenure, a dynasty that won championships in 1995, 2000, 2002-04, 2009-10 and 2013-16.

But as Bueckers said earlier this month, they have yet to be No. 1 in April when it counts as the team lifting the trophy. Fudd and Bueckers have played only 17 games together over three years while both have dealt with injuries.

Viewership on the rise

The national championship game between LSU and Iowa drew a record 9.9 million viewers and peaked at 12.6 million, making it the most-watched NCAA women’s basketball game ever. The increase was 103% over 2022. It was the most viewed college event in the five-year history of ESPN+.

LSU's Angel Reese points to her ring finger toward Iowa's Caitlin Clark during the fourth quarter of the 2023 NCAA women's championship game at American Airlines Center in Dallas, on April 2, 2023. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

LSU’s Angel Reese points to her ring finger toward Iowa’s Caitlin Clark during the fourth quarter of the 2023 NCAA women’s championship game on April 2, 2023, at American Airlines Center in Dallas. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
The viewership wasn’t saved just for the title game, either. The Sweet 16 had a 73% increase in viewership from 2022, with an average of 1.2 million viewers per game. UConn-Ohio State drew 2.4 million viewers, the most of the round. The four games in the Elite Eight each had more than 1 million viewers, topping out with Iowa-Louisville at 2.5 million.

With the audience only continuing to grow, more household names and greater parity across the sport, women’s college basketball will continue to set viewership records.

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