Women’s college hoops has produced a new cast of power programs to challenge UCONN’s recent supremacy.
The new crop of legendary coaches in women’s college basketball matched wits on Sunday night. Notre Dame’s Muffet McGraw and Baylor’s Kim Mulkey were trying to join icons Geno Auriemma and Pat Summitt as the only coaches in women’s D-I history with three or more NCAA titles.
Notre Dame was also trying to become the first back-to-back champions not named UCONN or Tennessee, since Cheryl Miller‘s USC squad did it in 1983 and ‘84. Last season, Notre Dame was considered a Cinderella squad of sorts. They won games in dramatic fashion while raising the profile of women’s hoops.
This year’s finals was heart-stopping as well.
The NCAA reported its highest attendance in 15 years at the Women’s Final Four and regional playoffs. More than 20,000 fans poured into Tampa’s Amalie Arena for the final.
Just days after winning the AP women’s hoops coach of the year award, Mulkey’s team almost coughed up a double-digit lead, but survived an inury to a kep player and hung on to complete a scripted-for-Hollywood 82-81 win in last night’s incredible national championship game. The Lady Bears clinched their first title since 2012, reintroducing themselves to college basketball’s elite.
Championship games that go down to the wire, have become a familiar scene in recent years. This dynamic has kept women’s basketball fans from all over engaged in March Madness. Since Connecticut destroyed Syracuse 82-51 in 2016, the last three NCAA Champions have won by a combined total of just 16 points.
The fact that UCONN hasn’t won a title in those three seasons, after winning 9 out of the 15 previous NCAA Women’s Finals, speaks volumes about the direction fo the women’s game. Geno’s girls are still contenders each season, but the Huskies Dynasty appears to be over. The talent pool in women’s basketball is expanding and we are entering a Golden Era of women’s hoops.
McGraw and Mulkey have also picked up where Summitt left off, as advocates for women’s rights and examples of how women in power can be successful.
McGraw recently made headlines when she blasted the lack of women coaches and women in leadership positions and said she would no longer hire male assistant coaches.
Mulkey said she understood McGraw “bringing attention to what needs to be fixed” when it comes to the lack of women coaches, but the Baylor coach said she’d hire “the best person for the job.”
They have contrasting styles, but both coaches move with a purpose to lead and enhancing all aspects of women’s athletics.
According to ESPN, “Sunday will mark the first time since 2012 — when it was the same two coaches and programs — that the championship game features two women coaches. Overall, since the NCAA tournament began for women in 1982, it’s the 13th title game in which both teams’ head coaches are women.”
The intensity and prestige of the title game remains the same, but the players have been slowly changing. Notre Dame has been the championship runner-up in four of the past eight seasons. Mississippi State beat Connecticut en route to appearing in back-to-back NCAA title games in 2017 and 2018.
When they ended UCONN’s 111-game win streak, that was the first sign that a change was coming. Dawn Staley and South Carolina won in 2017.
UConn is no longer the only women’s basketball show on earth worth watching.
The overall strength of the women’s game is growing and its popularity was evident on Sunday night.
Expect thrilling, high-scoring games to be the norm and unlike the past two decades when the women’s basketball world revolved around UCONN and Tennessee, there are now at least five elite women’s programs that will be in the championship mix every season.