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NCAA investment in a second women's basketball tournament emerges as a big hit in Indy

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — As the eagerly anticipated LSU-Iowa women's rematch was about to tip off, Washington State coach Kamie Ethridge took a seat in Indianapolis, lamented her team's season-ending loss and celebrated another milestone moment for the sport.

Four more women's teams were playing here, in April, thanks to the NCAA's new Women's Basketball Invitation Tournament.

Inside one of the sport's venerable venues, Butler's Hinkle Fieldhouse, Ethridge was one of many players and coaches gushing about the opportunities this new event presented for the game — even after an 81-58 semifinal loss to Illinois in front of a mostly orange-clad crowd on Monday night.

“Unfortunately, I don’t know if that was neutral,” Ethridge joked. “I thought Illinois showed up really well. Great environment, great environment and better to have that than an empty arena.”

Sure, getting fans to Monday afternoon games with the second game bleeding into the start of the much ballyhooed Caitlin Clark-Angel Reese rivalry never was going to be easy. But the start times created a seemingly made-for-television quadruple-header on one of the biggest days in the sport's history.

For those who made the two-hour drive from Champaign to Indy, it was well worth the trip.

Fourth-seeded Illinois (18-15) has now won a school record four consecutive postseason games in a single tourney. One more — Wednesday night against top-seeded Villanova (22-12) — would give the Fighting Illini their first postseason tournament title in program history.

So in a season filled with a growing amount of sellouts, major headlines and more prime-time televised games and increasing ratings, the scene playing out at Hinkle seemed a natural reflection of the changing dynamics of women's basketball across the nation.

“It was definitely a sea of orange out there,” Illinois center Camille Hobby said. “So many of our fans drove over from the university area and other parts of Illinois, it was really exciting to see everyone. They were loud. It was exciting. It definitely was a boost to us.”

A larger crowd may show up for Wednesday's 7 p.m. tip.

This is precisely what NCAA organizers envisioned by announcing last summer they would financially back and run a secondary women's national postseason tourney — nearly two decades after taking over the NIT.

The investment came at a time interest in women's basketball was surging and less than four years after players and coaches complained about the clear disparities between the 2021 men's and women's NCAA tournaments played in bubbles during the COVID-19 pandemic.

They didn't end there. At this year's women's tourney, a conflict of interest involving one ref prompted NCAA officials to make a mid-game change, and last weekend at the Portland Regional came the revelation that the 3-point lines were not identical.

Here, though, there has been virtually unanimous support and these teams, unlike some of the men's Power Five teams, resisted opting out.

“To be the first champions would be really cool," Villanova star Lucy Olsen. “We wish we were in March Madness again. The past two years have been awesome experiences. But we didn’t make it. So we’re not just going to quit. We’re a team of winners. We don’t want to lose, so any game you put in front of us, we're going to try to win.”

Another indication of the growing popularity of women's basketball is that the WNIT still exists as it always has, under a separate ownership group from both the NCAA and the previous NIT organizers.

That means even more women’s teams can keep playing and Penn State coach Carolyn Kieger believes it provides an invaluable foundational benefit.

“I’ve been a part of a lot of WNIT Championship games or Final Four games, and now with the WBIT, I did it,” she said after the Nittany Lions' 58-53 loss to Villanova. “Every single time, it propelled us into the future. It taught us how to win in March. It taught us how to lose. It taught us how to be tough."

And it's no longer about only Clark or Reese, LSU or Iowa, UConn or South Carolina.

It's tournaments like this where the next generation of stars and up-and-coming teams can flourish, grow and learn what it takes to go from challenger to champion.

“You have to be built the right way to advance, and we are just not quite built the right way to beat a team like Illinois right now,” Ethridge said. “That’s why you can turn on the TV right now — I’m sure there’s a game going on where you see unique skillsets and athletes and sizes and bodies, and just the talent level. That’s why they are still playing right now.”

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AP March Madness bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-womens-bracket/ and coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness