PETE IACOBELLI Associated Press
Women’s college basketball is off to a great start this year. Big Eiffel tower.
No. 6 South Carolina and No. 10 Notre Dame ends the season in Paris on Monday, the first time the women’s game will be played in the City of Lights.
“I think it’s really cool to be a guide,” said Dawn Staley, South Carolina coach. Tipoff is at 1 pm ET on ESPN.
The international debut comes after a year of significant growth for the game, both in arenas and on television. The NCAA data showed four programs – South Carolina, Iowa, Iowa State and UConn – that finished with average season attendance 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 its largest viewership since 2009, including a record 9.9 million tuning in for the final between Iowa and LSU. The regular season had the most viewers since 2014-15.
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“There couldn’t be a better time to do this,” said match organizer Lea Miller-Tooley at Complete Sports Management.
This is not the only exhibition for the women’s game on the opening week. On Thursday, AP Player of the Year Caitlin Clark and her teammates play national runner-up Iowa, Final Four participant Virginia Tech at the NBA arena in Charlotte, North Carolina.
That follows Iowa’s exhibition game, known as 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 commit Maddy Westbeld started 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 before in women’s basketball and the fact that it’s two such highly regarded programs,” Westbeld said. “Oh my, it gives me chills to think that we are part of something so legendary and modern.”
Both teams came to France and went through jam-packed schedules including 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 talented teams.
The Fighting Irish, who reached the Sweet 16 a year ago, are not sure if star Olivia Miles, who injured her knee in 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 will be the pros after leading the team to all three Final Fours and the 2022 national title. Staley said there is a new feeling with her players who have little experience. of them taking on increased roles.
“I’m waiting for my two years” behind her talented former teammates, Bree Hall said. “I’m excited to get out there.”
Ivey, who has been to Paris twice before, said she had a strong connection with Marcus Freeman, the Notre Dame football coach whose team opened its season against Navy in Ireland. Freeman “told us to accept the present, but find a way to do what you need to do,” said Ivey.
UConn coach Geno Auriemma said the game is growing internationally and he expects more opportunities for US programs to play games overseas as interest grows. “It’s not soccer yet, but (college basketball) is pretty good,” he said.
Television analyst Debbie Antonelli was at Colonial Life Arena Tuesday night for ESPN as Staley and the team held a combo-Halloween open practice meeting for younger fans. The former North Carolina State standout said she sees bigger things for the women’s game and the matchups for the continued premiere.
“These are games people want to see,” she said. “It’s great that we’re taking the sport to new places.”
Staley, who played pro ball in the south of France before joining the ABL and WNBA, has long been pushing NCAA hoops to make a mark on the world. She is fulfilling that dream.
“We’re the first,” Staley said. “But we won’t be the last.”
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