DALLAS — The most-anticipated game of the NCAA Tournament isn’t a final. It isn’t in Houston, either.
Fans of women’s basketball have been clamoring the last two years for the Aliyah Boston and Caitlin Clark showdown, and those who just tuned in during March Madness have now joined the chorus. Well, the masses are finally getting what they want.
“Everybody has been talking about this matchup for a really long time. It’s exciting that it’s happening in the Final Four,” Boston said Thursday. “I think it’s just a great game for women’s basketball. I know there’s going to be a lot of people in the crowd, a lot of people watching the game.
“Just super excited to be in that environment.”
On paper, Friday’s second semifinal is between high-octane Iowa and impenetrable South Carolina. Iowa is in the Final Four for the first time in 30 years while South Carolina is trying to become the first defending champion to repeat since UConn in 2016.
Anyone who’s paid even a second of attention to this year’s tournament, however, knows it’s all about Boston and Clark.
They are a contrast in both playing styles and personalities. Boston is a two-time national defensive player of the year who can short-circuit entire offenses, while Clark is a gunslinger who thinks nothing of pulling up from the logo. Boston prefers to let her game talk for her, while Clark plays to the crowd.
“People compare Caitlin to Aliyah, and to me that’s apples to oranges. It makes no sense. They are completely different players. They are completely different positions,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. “They’re both great at what they do, but what they do is different.”
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Tickets for the men’s Final Four on Saturday were going for less than $50 on StubHub on Thursday while the get-in price for the women’s games were over $200. Granted, the men are playing in a football stadium with about four times the capacity of American Airlines Center, home of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks.
But the secondary ticket market is just one more data point showing the skyrocketing interest in the women’s tournament, and women’s basketball in general.
While there have been steep declines in viewership of the men’s tournament, fueled by upsets that took out the usual favorites, the women’s tournament is setting records. Iowa’s win over Louisville on Sunday in the Elite Eight, when Clark became the first player in NCAA Tournament history with a 40-point triple-double, drew the largest audience for a non-Final Four game. The previous record had been set one day earlier with Ohio State’s upset of UConn.
South Carolina’s Elite Eight win over Maryland drew the seventh-largest audience outside the Final Four, despite the game being a rout and occurring on a Monday.
It’s not all because of Boston and Clark. But a lot of it is.
Even Magic is paying attention, name-checking Clark several times already during the tournament.
“It definitely shows how the game is growing and how high of a demand there is for people to want to get in the door of this game. A lot of people are going to turn it on on TV, too, if they can’t make it down to Dallas,” Clark said. “I think we’re just grateful more than anything.”
The only downside is that Aliyah vs. Caitlin, sorry, Iowa-South Carolina isn’t a title game. Blame the women’s selection committee for that poor planning.
Had Iowa been seeded No. 1, as it should have been after upsetting Indiana in the regular-season finale and winning the Big Ten tournament, the Hawkeyes could have ended up on the other side of the bracket.
But nooooo. The committee made Iowa a No. 2 seed and put the Hawkeyes on a collision course with South Carolina in the semifinals. Talk about blowing a layup.
“A lot of people are going to watch it,”South Carolina point guard Zia Cooke said. “I think it’s going to do big numbers, and it’s going to be a game that goes down in history.”
Seeing Aliyah Boston and Caitlin Clark face off in the Final Four is as good as it gets. And it’s great for women’s basketball.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.