Are you a fan yet? Have you been convinced that women’s basketball isn’t just good, but great, not to mention fun and frantic and getting better every postseason?
If you’re not a fan of women’s basketball by now, you’re likely looking for a reason to stay away. And that’s fine. If the young women playing in the NCAA Tournament haven’t sold you on their product at this point, it’s your loss. But you can’t say you love basketball, or sports, while continually dismissing the future of it.
We love sports because they mimic life: They teach us about overcoming adversity, playing through pain, stepping into a big moment and shining even if no one gives you a chance. There’s unprecedented joy and agonizing heartbreak.
Friday’s national semifinal between Stanford and South Carolina gave us all that in a down-to-the-wire finish that Stanford won, 66-65, after the Gamecocks missed two chances to win it in the final seconds.
Stanford and South Carolina traded runs in the first half and big shots in the second half before treating us to an incredible last 78 seconds. Trailing 64-62, South Carolina did what it does best — grab an offensive rebound to give itself another chance. And Destanni Henderson capitalized, draining a 3 with 39 seconds left to play to give USC its first lead since 1:45 to play in the first quarter. Stanford called a timeout and drew up a shot for Lexie Hull — which Hull missed.
But then Haley Jones, who’d been great all night (24 points on 11-of-14 shooting, four rebounds and two assists) and who remains the toughest matchup in the tournament, did what she’d done for the previous 39 minutes, and drained a critical shot to put Stanford back in front, 66-65.
Then, chaos, hope and heartbreak: South Carolina called a timeout, Stanford blocked a shot, South Carolina got an offensive board, Stanford got a steal, South Carolina stole it back and Henderson raced down the floor. Her shot clanked off, but Aliyah Boston, USC’s sensational sophomore who is one of the best two-way players in the country, got her hands on another offensive rebound, her seventh of the night.
But her attempted tip-in was too strong, and as the clock expired, Boston (11 points, 16 rebounds) instantly burst into tears while Stanford players celebrated. It will be the Cardinal’s first trip to the title game since 2010.
Before everyone left the court there also was a moving embrace between Jones, the game’s hero, and her best friend Boston, who she knows through USA Basketball.
It was a tremendous showcase not just for women’s basketball, but women’s sports. For the last two weeks of the NCAA tournaments, players — young men and women — have talked not only about the importance of supporting women’s basketball, but why it should be done: Because the product is darn good.
“We put a product on the floor that if you give us a chance, you can be proud of,” said South Carolina coach Dawn Staley. “To the casual fan, the dad that likes to sit on the couch and watch sports all day, to the young, to the old.
“Women who can flat out shoot the ball, create space for rebounding, dribble the basketball. Some of the plays that Zia (Cooke) made, most men can’t make that play. That snatch-back, crossover-dribble pullup, most men can’t do that.”
Still unconvinced? Looking for a man to validate the women’s game? There are plenty willing to do so. Take the word of Jalen Suggs, a probable NBA lottery pick and standout for the No. 1 Gonzaga men who loves to watch women’s basketball — likely because his best friend, UConn freshman phenom Paige Bueckers taught him long ago that he’d better respect it.
The game featured just four lead changes and three ties, but plenty of big-time shots and bigger blocks (the teams combined for 17 total). In the final minutes and after the final horn, Twitter buzzed with exclamations about what a great game it was. There was no talk about missed shots or bad looks, but rather an acknowledgment that this game, and this tournament, has been worth watching.
There’s been plenty of talk online about women’s basketball lately, but most of it has involved outrage: first over the obvious inequity and sexism at the women’s tournament compared to the men’s and earlier this week about the no-call at the end of Baylor-UConn.
Friday, it was about talent and toughness. Maybe it’ll be that way Sunday, too.
“Seeing a game like this, back and forth … no one is giving up, so competitive. It was just a great game,” said Jones, pointing to the teams’ obvious passion and how that energy jumps off the TV screen. “I think it shows we can be gritty, we can be tough. We’re athletic, we push the ball. We do everything. Our game is so special and it does need more recognition.”
Staley was a little more to the point.
“Sometimes we have a willingness to just look at women and think we can’t play,” she said. “Well, you’re missing out. You’re missing out on some great basketball.”
Fortunately, you’ve still got Sunday to enjoy it.
Follow reporter Lindsay Schnell on Twitter @Lindsay_Schnell