Iowa, LSU prepare for highly anticipated rematch

Mar. 31—ALBANY, N.Y. — As fans began to the file out of MVP Arena on Saturday evening and the teams returned to their locker rooms, Caitlin Clark remained in a corner of the court dutifully signing autographs for dozens of children dressed in Iowa's black and gold colors.

It's become a familiar sight after Hawkeyes' games this season. But this one felt special, coming 1,026 miles from Carver Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City.

"I think it's so cool, especially when you're in New York, far away from Iowa where you grew up and where you play most of your games," Clark said Sunday as the top-seeded Hawkeyes prepared for Monday's national championship game rematch against third-seeded LSU. "It's been cool to see our impact all across the country, and I think that goes back to what we were able to do at the Final Four last year and the way people loved our team and loved getting to support our team."

Iowa has rarely — if ever — played in front of an empty seat this season. Arenas set attendance records everywhere the Hawkeyes go.

They've become a pop culture phenomenon like the Chicago Bulls of the 1990s, Tiger Woods during his heyday on the PGA Tour or Patrick Mahomes and the current Kansas City Chiefs.

Fans and detractors alike can't take their eyes off this team. Television ratings records routinely fall when Iowa plays, and the media coverage reaches levels rarely seen in women's college basketball.

Somehow, all of that attention is expected to ramp up even further Monday when the Hawkeyes (32-4) and Tigers (31-5) meet in the Albany Regional 2 final with a return trip to the Final Four on the line.

LSU guard Hailey Van Lith — a transfer addition from Louisville — remembers being glued to her television during last year's national title game. The contest played a big role in her decision to join the Tigers during the offseason, and now she'll be a participant in the highly anticipated rematch.

"I was actually watching the game back at my place at my old school, and I just remember just the excitement of the game and the emotions that you could see through the TV, and you just felt like it was a huge moment for women's basketball," she said. "I felt like a weird drawing to how emotional the game was, and I felt like I really related to that, and that's how I played and stuff. I remember exactly where I was when I watched it."

Some 12 million viewers tuned in for that contest — a 102-85 victory that gave the Tigers their first national championship — and the number could be similarly large this time around.

Much of the focus falls on two players — Clark and LSU star Angel Reese.

Despite the on-court trash talk between the two and the competitive fire that fuels both women, they say they're actually close off the court.

They've played against one another dating back to their high school days, and Reese began her college career as a Big Ten rival to Clark at Maryland.

In this case, familiarity breeds respect.

"For me, I don't think people realize it's not personal," Reese said of her infamous trash-talking proclivity. "Once we get out between those lines, if I see you walking down the street, it's like, 'Hey, girl, what's up? Let's hang out.'

"I think people just take it like we hate each other. Me and Caitlin don't hate each other. I want everybody to understand that. It's just a super competitive game."

Both coaches understand the focus will be on the superstars. They're also both aware neither team would have advanced this far if the superstars were the only women making plays.

Reese averages 18.7 points and 13.2 rebounds per game and will be among the WNBA's top draft picks if she elects to go pro after the season. But she's just one of five Tigers averaging double-figure scoring, and guard Aneesah Morrow is barely shy of joining her in double-figure rebounding at 9.9 per game.

"They're just an excellent basketball team," Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. "I mean, it's going to take a complete game by us, but they're pretty balanced. You've got five people averaging in double figures. That's really hard to guard when you have that kind of balance.

"They have experience, great experience at all their spots. There's just not a lot weaknesses there."

Clark's exploits are legendary. She leads the Hawkeyes in scoring (31.7), rebounds (7.3), assists (8.9) and steals (1.8). She broke Pete Maravich's all-time NCAA scoring record, and she's third all-time among women in career assists.

But the Hawkeyes have two other players — forward Hannah Steulke (14) and guard Kate Martin (12.8) scoring in double figures — and they shoot 38.2% from 3-point range as a team.

"You'd better guard the three ball," LSU coach Kim Mulkey said. "They play their roles extremely well. They have such a connection with Clark that when you think you have the three ball covered or the denial, they'll backdoor you.

"They're going to run. When you look at Iowa, you may not think they get a lot of transition baskets, but they do. Yes, they're a three-ball shooting team, but they do other things. They're good. They're just good. We're going to have to play extremely, extremely well."

Monday is another day that could be huge for the continuing growth of the sport.

Following the LSU-Iowa game — set to tip off at 7 p.m. on ESPN — Southern California and Connecticut will play for the last Final Four berth in Portland, Oregon. That game also features a pair of transcendent stars in USC's JuJu Watkins and UConn's Paige Bueckers.

It's the kind of showcase that has become commonplace for Clark and her teammates. But she is glad to see the attention expanding.

"I think women's basketball fans know how special and cool this moment will be," Clark said. "I think the viewership numbers will show that. I think the worst part of it is two teams are getting sent home. All of them can't keep playing, but that's what makes this competitive environment so fun.

"Everybody is fighting to be able to play one more game, come back to practice with one another. I think, more than anything, it's just great for our game. I'm lucky to be a part of it."