John Tomase

Why are Caitlin Clark and women's hoops having a moment? They're fun as hell

Friday night's Iowa vs. UConn showdown in the Final Four is must-see TV.

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In the winter of 1994, while home on college break, I joined some friends at the Attleboro Y for a little Sunday morning basketball.

The gym was packed and the waits long. Games to seven and then GTF off the court. As we took the floor, I exhaled in relief. "I'll guard the girl," I said.

She looked athletic and was the only woman in a sea of 20-something dudes, but it's not like she'd embarrass me.

It turns out that verb doesn't even remotely convey the utter humiliation I endured over the next five minutes. Maybe four.

Our first miss, she takes off before I've even turned around and streaks unguarded for a layup. Huh. Our second miss, she does it again. And again. And again. "Is someone gonna guard her?" wafts a voice from the sidelines. Dude, I'm trying! She drills two jumpers in my face and I decide to forgo offense. There's no way she's scoring all seven.

As if I have a say. She races out on one last break, but this time I'm waiting. She leaps for a layup, ball held high. I aim higher and hammer her. She absorbs the contact, dipsy-dos right under me like Isiah Thomas, and lays it in before hitting the floor. They win, 7-0.

Correction: She wins, 7-0.

As she exchanges high fives and readjusts her ponytail, unruffled by my cheap shot, a teammate says, "Good game, Sarah."

Suddenly the universe, and my gnat-like presence in it, makes sense. "Oh god," I realize. "Sarah Behn."

As a Mansfield High alum, I should've recognized rival Foxboro's All-American. She had already graduated from Boston College as the all-time leading scorer in Big East history, men or women. Had the WNBA existed, she would've been a first-round pick. She instead went on to a long career as a coach, most recently at Brown.

Kicking my ass was an insulting waste of her time, but it taught me a valuable lesson at the intersection of casual sexism and youthful ignorance: never underestimate a woman on the court again.

It's hard to imagine anyone would make that mistake now. The women's NCAA tournament is in full swing and the sport is experiencing a capital-M Moment that feels like it's only the beginning.

Nearly 13 million people tuned in on Monday to watch Caitlin Clark and Iowa avenge last year's title loss to Angel Reese and LSU, and maybe even more will be watching on Friday when Clark takes on UConn's Paige Bueckers in the Final Four.

The former might be the most compelling athlete in America, and she just delivered an instant-legend performance that combined Steph Curry's marksmanship with Pistol Pete Maravich's showmanship on a massive stage.

When she conducted a halftime interview with ESPN's Holly Rowe tied at 45, Clark had just watched her Hawkeyes blow a big lead. If she feared what another loss to the Tigers might mean to her legacy, she didn't show it. She spoke with a broad smile, as if to say whatever happens, the sport wins.

Except a few minutes later she reminded everyone why they were watching. The three 3-pointers she drilled to open the second half featured increasingly absurd degrees of difficulty, the finale a scintillating sidestep 29-footer. Clark finished with 41 points and 12 assists; after one of her bombs, all poor, overmatched defender Hailey Van Lith could do was shrug in appreciation while the rest of us searched the carpet for our jaws.

It's been that kind of season, and it's not over yet. Friday's ratings should once again be massive, and standing in Clark's way is powerhouse UConn and Bueckers, a superstar who's a tremendous story in her own right. The consensus Player of the Year as a freshman, Bueckers missed most of the next two seasons following ankle surgery, a broken leg, and a torn ACL. She returned this year to post monster numbers and challenge Clark as the best player in the country.

Adding even more intrigue is Clark's admission that she dreamed of playing for UConn, but Hall of Fame coach Geno Auriemma never recruited her.

Now they're going head to head in what could be a watershed moment for the sport. The other semifinal features undefeated South Carolina, led by former pro Dawn Staley, and upstart North Carolina State, this year's Cinderella story.

They're the last teams standing from a magical season that has turned multiple women into household names and made their tournament far buzzier than the men's. From USC's JuJu Watkins dropping 50 in one of her first games, to Stanford's Cameron Brink appearing in a New Balance commercial alongside NBA champs Kawhi Leonard and Jamal Murray, to Notre Dame freshman ballhawk Hannah Hidalgo wreaking havoc, the biggest stars in the women's game have made their product compelling for all the right reasons. They're simply fun to watch.

That's why even casual fans will be tuning in for Clark vs. Bueckers on Friday. It's a sign of how far we've come that the next time a weekend warrior encounters either of them in the Y, he won't ask to guard them. He'll ask for an autograph.

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