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More eyes, more scrutiny: South Carolina-LSU scrap seen as a bad look for growing women's game

GREENVILLE, S.C. (AP) — More eyes, more fans and more scrutiny. The good and the bad of the game has all come into sharper focus as women's college basketball continues to grow in popularity.

What fans saw Sunday in the Southeastern Conference tournament championship was No. 1 South Carolina and LSU getting into a late-game confrontation that led to multiple ejections. Chippy play, plenty of trash talking and players thrown out — something more familiar to fans watching an NBA game.

“I just don’t want the people who are tuning in to women’s basketball to see that and think that is our game, because it isn’t,” said South Carolina coach Dawn Staley, who apologized to the crowd and in postgame interviews. “Our game is a really beautiful thing.”

Not always.

Earlier this season, Ohio State fans were criticized for a court-storming incident where Iowa star Caitlin Clark collided with a fan rushing to celebrate. Last year, Clark and LSU star Angel Reese's trash talking in the national championship game. surprised fans who may not know that the women's game has plenty of that, just as it has hard fouls and rough-and-tumble play.

Last November, the NCAA said it was putting a new emphasis on sportsmanship after last season saw a 33% increase in technical fouls, including a 77% increase on techs given to head coaches and a whopping 193% increase on technical fouls assessed to personnel on the bench. Ejections were way up and there were at least two prominent on-court fights.

A month ago, five players were ejected during a game between Southern Miss and Arkansas State but that was an under-the-radar game. The LSU-South Carolina skirmish happened in front of 13,163 screaming fans at the Bon Secours Wellness Arena and many more watching on ESPN.

With about two minutes left in South Carolina's 79-72 victory, MiLaysia Fulwiley stole the ball from LSU's Flau'jae Johnson, who then intentionally fouled her to prevent a breakaway basket. Fulwiley's teammate, Ashlyn Watkins, walked past, yelling at Johnson, who pushed her away. Soon after, 6-foot-7 South Carolina star Kamilla Cardoso ran in and pushed the 5-foot-10 Johnson to the ground as both benches emptied.

Security, officials and coaches eventually calmed things down. Johnson's brother was arrested and faces charges after police say he jumped over the scorer's table to get involved.

Cardoso was ejected for fighting while three of her teammates were thrown out for leaving the bench, as were two LSU players. Cardoso will face a one-game suspension, per NCAA rules, and miss the Gamecocks' NCAA Tournament opener next week.

Debbie Antonelli, a North Carolina State Hall of Fame player and basketball analyst, said the game's intensity at the college level has always been high.

“I think when you step between the lines you're athletes and this is what competitive athletes do,” Antonelli said Monday.

LSU coach Kim Mulkey said she thought officials did not call a tight enough game.

“Do you realize there was only one foul called on each team with two minutes to play in the fourth quarter? Are you kidding me?,” Mulkey said. “That might have created some of that.”

South Carolina finished off the final two minutes of the 79-72 victory and then Staley took control, apologizing to fans during the trophy ceremony and in media interviews for her team's actions.

“We talk about these things as a team, and we try as much as possible to express to them how to react in those type of situations,” Staley said. “Real time is real time. I know that anybody, Kamilla, as well as the other four or five players that were ejected, I know if they had a chance to do it all over again, they would do it differently.”

Staley said LSU's Johnson apologized for her actions and Cardoso took to social media after the game's end to say she was sorry for her actions and pledged to do better.

Antonelli said there is no place for fighting in any game, men's or women's, and believes fans understand that this was unusual, not a trend.

“It's going to be a storyline when South Carolina plays the 16th seed (in the NCAA Tournament) and then we'll move past it,” she said.

Staley hopes that's the case, too.

“This is a part of it now,” she said. “So we have to fix it and we have to move on.”

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AP women’s college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-womens-college-basketball-poll and https://apnews.com/hub/womens-college-basketball