Women's college basketball is starting big this year. Eiffel Tower big.
“I think it's pretty darn cool to be trendsetters,” said Dawn Staley, the South Carolina coach. Tipoff is 1 p.m. ET on ESPN.
The international start follows a year of landmark growth for the game, both in arenas and on TV. NCAA data showed four programs — South Carolina, Iowa, Iowa State and UConn — finished with season attendance averages of better than 10,000. A season ago, the Gamecocks were the only ones to surpass that mark.
ESPN said after the NCAA Tournament that March Madness had the most viewers since 2009, including a record 9.9 million tuning in for the championship game between Iowa and LSU. The regular season also had its most viewers since 2014-15.
“There couldn't be a better time to do this,” said game organizer Lea Miller-Tooley at Complete Sports Management.
It won't be the only showcase for the women's game on opening week. On Thursday, AP Player of the Year Caitlin Clark and her national runner-up Iowa teammates play Final Four participant Virginia Tech at the NBA arena in Charlotte, North Carolina.
That follows Iowa's exhibition game, called the Crossover at Kinnick, where an NCAA single-game record 55,646 fans showed up to watch the first women's game in an outdoor football stadium last month.
Notre Dame senior forward Maddy Westbeld began hearing whispers about playing overseas earlier this year and said she felt overwhelmed when it became official.
“The fact that it's never been done in women's basketball and the fact that it's two such highly ranked and respected programs,” Westbeld said. “Oh, my gosh, it gives me chills to think that we're a part of something so legendary and something so new."
Both teams arrived in France and went through jam-packed schedules that included youth clinics and sightseeing at the Louvre for masterpieces like da Vinci's “Mona Lisa."
Now, the focus is on the game between the two highly skilled and accomplished teams.
The Fighting Irish, who reached the Sweet 16 a year ago, are unsure if star Olivia Miles, who injured her knee at the ACC Tournament last March, will be ready to hit the court, coach Niele Ivey said.
The Gamecocks will be without Aliyah Boston, Zia Cooke and Brea Beal, who are off to the pros after leading the team to the past three Final Fours and the 2022 national title. Staley said there's a new feeling as her less experienced players take on increased roles.
“I've been waiting my two years” behind her talented ex-teammates, Bree Hall said. “I'm excited to go out there.”
Ivey, who's been to Paris twice before, said she had tapped a strong resource in Marcus Freeman, the Notre Dame football coach whose team opened their season against Navy in Ireland. Freeman “told us embrace the moment, but find a way to do what you need to do," Ivey said.
UConn coach Geno Auriemma said the game is growing internationally and expects more opportunities for U.S. programs to play games overseas as interest increases. “It's not soccer yet, but (college basketball) is pretty darn good,” he said.
TV analyst Debbie Antonelli was at Colonial Life Arena on Tuesday night for ESPN as Staley and the team held a combo open practice-Halloween gathering for younger fans. The former North Carolina State standout said she sees bigger things for the women's game and continued premiere matchups.
“These are games people want to see," she said. “It's great we're taking the sport to new places.”
Staley, who played pro ball in southern France before joining the ABL and WNBA, has long pushed for NCAA hoops to make a mark on the world. She's seeing that dream fulfilled.
“We're the first,” Staley said. “But we won't be the last.”
AP Sports Writer Pat Eaton-Robb contributed to this report.
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