A National Championship rematch goes down Monday, in Albany – Hartford Courant


ALBANY, N.Y. — Last year, it was THE MOST-WATCHED women’s basketball game in history, peaking at more than 12 million viewers.

It was also the National Championship.

On Monday night, the nation will get Part 2 of Iowa versus Louisiana State University but this time, the stage will be the Elite 8 and it will happen at MVP Arena.

With the latter, the Capital Region is more than thrilled.

“This is arguably one of the biggest NCAA events in the history of Albany, and that’s saying a lot,” said MVP Arena general manager Bob Belber, going through the history of past NCAA men’s and women’s basketball regionals, men’s hockey Frozen Fours and wrestling championships. “There’s a bigger National Media presence than any other.”

The fact this meeting won’t be for a National Championship trophy, but instead a berth in the Final Four, has the coaches and players a little disappointed.

“I know that these are two really good basketball teams, and it’s almost unfortunate they’re meeting this early. But everybody that’s left now is really good. LSU is certainly that,” Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder said on Saturday evening at a postgame press conference after defeating Colorado in the Sweet 16 to advance.

LSU head coach Kim Mulkey didn’t mince words when agreeing with her opponent: “This is not to take away from any other team remaining, but I understand her point. We talk about growing the game. Didn’t that National Championship game have the highest ratings ever in women’s basketball? You’re probably going to anticipate this one will, too, but it needs to be at the Final Four.”

“That may be what she’s talking about. I’m not going to speak for her. But man, this would be special if it was at the Final Four,” Mulkey said at her press conference, on Easter Sunday morning.

Bluder was asked to revisit the topic on Sunday, at her own press conference in preview for the rematch:

“I’m sure the (NCAA’s Tournament Selection) committee did what they thought was best as far as seeding this,” she said. “There’s a lot of storylines, obviously, that have been created through the bracket, but I don’t think the committee sits there and thinks about the storylines. I think they’re really trying to just seed the tournament as best they can, and they felt this is the best way.

“Do I wish we were facing — I just want to be playing in the Final Four, so do I play LSU here or there? It doesn’t matter. We just want to play our best game tomorrow and try to get there.”

That hypothetical certainly would be special, however, it doesn’t exist and the two will meet again in the Elite in a matchup that has seemed destined ever since the famed, “ring finger” pose struck by the Tigers’ star forward, Angel Reese – “The Bayou Barbie” — seemingly towards Iowa’s Caitlin Clark – the sport’s transcendent, record-breaker.

“There was a whole lot of media attention last year for that game and there were a whole lot of things that happened during the game. Will they happen again, perhaps, perhaps not,” said Belber. “They’re the two most elite, dominant teams in the game. Much more dominant than hand gestures.”

“For me, I don’t think people realize it’s not personal. 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 Clark don’t hate each other. I want everybody to understand that. It’s just a super competitive game,” Reese said of the competitors.

“I just wish people would realize that. Once I get between those lines, there’s no friends. I have plenty of friends on the court that I talk to outside of the game, but like when I get between those lines, we’re not friends. We’re not buddies. I’m going to talk trash to you. I’m going to do whatever it takes to get in your head the whole entire game, but after the game we can kick it. I don’t think people really realize that.

“That’s fine. I’ll take the villain role. I’ll take the hit for it. But I know we’re growing women’s basketball. If this is the way we’re going to do it, then this is the way we’re going to do it. You either like it or you don’t.”

“I would say me and Angel have always been great competitors. Obviously she played in the Big Ten for a while to begin her career, and that’s what makes women’s basketball so fun is you have great competition, and that’s what we’ve had all year long … like it’s not just us in women’s basketball. That’s not the only competitive thing about where our game is at, and that’s what makes it so good. We need multiple people to be really good,” Clark said on Sunday morning. “I think both of our careers, whether she decides to stay or to go, we’ll have great careers in the WNBA, and that’s been both of our dreams all along. So I think we’re both excited for that, as well.”

The game itself will look have to look quite different than it did a year ago, as while Clark and Reese will be among the carryovers from that game, the rosters look quite different. LSU, which won last year’s offensive shootout, 102-85, is missing 71 points from that box score, on this year’s team, including the three leading scorers.

Reese went for a double-double in that game, just as she’s averaged each of the past three season’s and posted in Saturday’s Sweet 16 win, but Flau’Jae Johnson, the leading scorer from Saturday with 24 points, along with 12 rebounds, scored just 10 points in the championship win last season, on 4-11 shooting.

Iowa knows it could be seeing a much different player, as Johnson has since been tabbed as, ‘the best sophomore in the country.’

“I’ve only had time to watch a couple of films, okay, but it seems like she has really elevated her game throughout this tournament. I mean, in the last five games she’s averaging 19 points versus 14 on the year,” Bluder said. “Her game has elevated. She’s really hard to guard. As a sophomore, she seems to have great leadership skills and great emotion.

“It seems like the team kind of goes with her emotion. She’s an unbelievable player.”

“I can describe Flau’jae in so many ways because I get to see her every day and coach her on her good days and her bad days. As you watch Flau’jae play and you’re just a casual fan that has no allegiance to LSU, you watch her and you go, wow, I just like watching her perform,” Mulkey said of her guard. “An example of that, maybe the blocked shot yesterday.

“She giggled and grinned all the way down the floor. She was so proud at 5-foot-9 that she could get up there and block a 6-7 young lady’s shot. The joy, she was just like, wow, that’s a memory for me.

“When you hear her talk, she just has that joy about her. She has no agendas. She gets very little sleep. That kid is probably up at 5:00 every morning writing stuff for her career and goes to class and comes to practice and works out.”

There’s another difference in the LSU backcourt, in grad student Hailey Van Lith, who last season, at Louisville, was on the wrong side of a matchup with Clark in a Elite 8, 97-83, loss.

On Saturday, in the 78-69, win over UCLA, Van Lith struggled from the field, going just 1-8 with seven points, but dished out five assists, went 5-6 from the free throw, only turned it over one time and also took perhaps the biggest charge of the game, with 39-seconds to play, and LSU only leading at the time by four.

The Tigers closed the game from that point on a 6-1 run, as a part of an overall 14-2 spurt after tailing, 67-64.

“I think we’re both very different teams than last year. We’ve lost a couple starters, and they’ve had some transfers come in, as well. We’re really mainly focused on ourselves right now,” Iowa guard Hannah Martin, who sored 14 point in the win over Colorado, said on Sunday.

“At this point in the season, there’s not much you can do to worry about anybody else other than yourselves, but we’re looking forward to it. It really didn’t matter to us who we were playing in this game because we’re just really excited to be back to the Elite 8 and get another shot at making another Final Four.”

The Hawkeyes’ headliner is still the same from last year, but her supporting cast has changed as well. Monika Czinano and McKenna Warnock combined for 22 points and 12 rebounds in what would be the frontcourt pairing’s final game in an Iowa uniform. At the time, underclassmen Hannah Stuelke and Sydney Affolter played just a combined 12 minutes, with Stuelke playing 11 of such an scoring two points (1-2 FG) with two rebounds and two turnovers.

“I don’t remember much from that game. That was a whole year ago,” Stuelke said, Sunday.

“I think boxing out is really important with Angel. She’s one of the best rebounders, if not the best. I think that’s my focus for this game for sure.”

In the cruise-control, 89-68 win Saturday over Colorado, Stuelke went for 11 points and 10 rebounds, while holding the Buffs’ forwards’ to just one, offensive rebound, while Affolter had 15 points and the team’s highest plus/minus, of +32 in over 33-minutes of playing time.

Clark was the trigger-woman of it all, as while she did score 29 points, it was the 15 assists that led the charge.

“I think we get reps like that all the time in practice, and Caitlin is the best passer in college basketball, and that’s what we like to do, we like to get out and run, and she always finds us in transition,” said Affolter, postgame on Saturday.

Clark dropped 30 points, on eight three-pointers, and eight assists in the loss to LSU on the National Title Stage. Monday night, she and the Hawkeyes will get their chance for revenge, as the two squads, which resemble almost an Ali-Frazier, Magic vs. Larry like high-profile rivalry, will be at the center of the National Stage, with the Capital Region right along with them.

“This game being a rematch of last year makes it exciting,” Belber said, “With the attention on it, the ESPN broadcast; all eyes will be on Albany, NY.”

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