How the NCAA women’s basketball tournament became must-see TV

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Arike Ogunbowale’s buzzer beaters were far from the first in the history of the NCAA women’s tournament. But they might have been the most visible, for any number of reasons: one sealed Notre Dame’s victory over the monolith UConn (just as Morgan William’s had the year prior), and the second was among the most perfect and improbable shots in recent basketball history, period. There was also the fact alone that there were two of them.

At a moment when video has rarely been more important or easy to distribute, her buckets went viral. A year later, ESPN used them as the centerpiece of this year’s NCAA tournament promotions, promising heart-stopping action to a degree that seemed potentially impossible to match. Had Ogunbowale and the Fighting Irish set too high of a precedent?

The 2018-2019 season would suggest that they hadn’t. There were nailbiters in the regular season, conference tournaments and March Madness, including this year’s Final Four and title game. While none of the games came exactly down to the buzzer, they were mostly high-scoring battles until the very end; both Final Four games were won by five points, and the final was won by one.

Overall, women’s college basketball has become undeniable proof that if you think women’s basketball is boring, you must not be watching it. The competition on the sport’s biggest stage has improved to the point where there’s no reason why it shouldn’t get the exact same consideration as the men’s tournament. It was inevitable — the longer the women’s side of the sport exists, the more girls will play; more girls playing means more competition to get to the next level, which in turn means that there are more, better players at the college level than ever before.

Even if the explanation is straightforward, it doesn’t make the shift any less significant. “What we’re seeing is a lot more parity in women’s basketball in general,” ESPN’s Maria Taylor told the Washington Post earlier this year. “Girls are starting to play sooner. They’re playing AAU on very talented teams, playing more specialized ball and getting in systems that fit them.”

“This is what women’s basketball needs right now,” said Texas A&M coach Gary Blair after his team lost an absurdly tight game to Notre Dame in the Sweet Sixteen, which featured Aggie star sophomore shooter Chennedy Carter going head to head with Ogunbowale. “They don’t need the double-digit wins and all of that.”

Parity has long been a buzzword in the women’s game, as powerhouses like UConn and Tennessee racked up titles. Baylor is hardly a stranger to deep runs in the tournament, and having that program get its third championship isn’t, on its face, clear evidence of an increasingly competitive field. More promising is the 2019 recruiting class; Dawn Staley and South Carolina have confirmed the top class of recruits, while UConn didn’t even crack the top 20.

The thing that’s made women’s college basketball so much fun to watch recently, though, isn’t just the tight games. It’s that social media, among other things, has made players’ personalities and performances so much more accessible — even when they’re not getting TV airtime they can draw the national spotlight, like South Carolina recruit Zia Cooke did recently with a viral mixtape.

That accessibility has made the game more visible and, frankly, more fun — which makes more girls want to start playing in the first place. It’s the best kind of self-perpetuating cycle, and one that will continue to make women’s basketball at every level even more compelling by the year.

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