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Caitlin Clark and Angel Reese's LSU-Iowa rematch nets a record audience for ESPN

LSU's Angel Reese, left, and Iowa guard Caitlin Clark, center, called their Elite Eight game a great event for their sport. Millions of viewers agreed, launching the contest to the top of ESPN's ratings.
Hans Pennink
LSU's Angel Reese, left, and Iowa guard Caitlin Clark, center, called their Elite Eight game a great event for their sport. Millions of viewers agreed, launching the contest to the top of ESPN's ratings.

Updated April 3, 2024 at 2:01 PM ET

When the two most fascinating basketball teams in the country tipped off in a win-or-go-home game Monday night, the country took notice: Iowa and LSU attracted the second-largest audience for any basketball game on ESPN — college or pro — since 2012, the network said.

ESPN says 12.3 million people watched the rematch of last year's NCAA women's tournament final, with a peak audience of 16.1 million viewers.

"Most-watched college basketball game EVER on ESPN platforms," the network said.

The Elite Eight game pitted Iowa and its superstar Caitlin Clark, the most prolific scorer in NCAA history, against LSU and its superstar, Angel Reese, the NCAA's record holder for double-doubles in a season.

It was the last time the pair will meet in college: Reese said on Wednesday that she will turn pro; Clark said the same in February.

"I'm leaving college with everything I ever wanted: a degree, a national championship, and this platform I could never imagine," Reese announced on her Instagram account. "This is for the girls that look like me."

Hype bloomed around a matchup of NCAA stars

Anticipation for Monday's game was piqued by high-profile stories from big-time newspapers hundreds of miles away from Iowa City and Baton Rouge. The Washington Post published a multi-page profile of LSU coach Kim Mulkey, and the Los Angeles Times issued a much-criticized polemic against LSU and its players (the paper revised the column after it was called racist and sexist).

The only people who seemed able to put the game into proper perspective were the players themselves.

"I think overall, it's going to be a really great game for women's basketball," Clark said ahead of the rematch.

"Me and Caitlin Clark don't hate each other. I want everybody to understand that. It's just a super-competitive game," Reese said the day before the game.

Raising the stakes even more: Clark, 22, was known to be playing her final college games, having announced she'll turn pro after this season. On Wednesday, Reese said she is also leaving college.

"This was a difficult decision," Reese said on Instagram. "But I trust the next chapter, because I know the author. Bayou Barbie out."

The Elite Eight lived up to its name

When it was finally time for Iowa and LSU to face off on Monday, the game quickly became a thriller, going into halftime with the score knotted at 45 points.

Iowa pulled away on the strength of Clark's 41 points and 12 assists, prevailing over LSU, 94-87, in MVP Arena in Albany, N.Y. Reese fouled out with 17 points and 20 rebounds.

If you missed it, here are the NCAA's extended highlights:

"I think it's just great for the sport, just being able to be a part of history," Reese said afterward. "Like I said, no matter which way it went tonight, I know this was going to be a night for the ages. And just being able to be a part of history is great."

The LSU senior, who has yet to announce whether she will turn pro, also noted that big games like Monday's are driving viewership.

"I'm sure so many different people watched us tonight," Reese said. "I'm happy to be here, I'm happy to keep raising women's sports, not just women's basketball but women's sports in general."

"I think being so close last year, it gives you a little fire and what you need to do," Clark said on Tuesday. She added that she's enjoying the moment: "Women's basketball is at its best right now and we're just lucky to be a part of it."

The Iowa-LSU rematch wasn't the only ratings success. ESPN says the women's Elite Eight games drew an average of 6.2 million viewers, up 184% from last year. Other big draws included UConn's win over USC and its phenom JuJu Watkins, which had 6.7 million viewers.

"Young girls today will never know a time when they couldn't consistently watch women's sports and their favorite athletes," Lindsey Darvin, an assistant professor of sport management at Syracuse University, said via X, the former Twitter. "They will continue to exist in a time where women athletes are as big of — if not bigger — stars than the men."

How to watch the Final Four

The college basketball feast continues on Friday, April 5, when the Final Four tip off in Cleveland, Ohio.

Overall No. 1 seed South Carolina faces No. 3 seed N.C. State at 7 p.m. ET, followed by Iowa facing No. 3 seed UConn at 9:30 p.m. Both games are on ESPN.

South Carolina is on a quest to stay undefeated and bring home a third national championship, counting on stifling defense and clutch shooting. Against N.C. State, they face a team with stellar guards (Aziaha James and Saniya Rivers) that beat UConn early in the season and perennial power Stanford in this year's tournament.

But as has been the case all season, Clark will be the big draw. And Friday's game brings her a new chance for revenge: Clark's Hawkeyes lost to UConn in the Sweet 16 when she was a freshman.

"The two best women's basketball players in college, Iowa's Caitlin Clark and UConn's Paige Bueckers, are set to go head-to-head this Friday," as NBA legend Magic Johnson said via X, the former Twitter, announcing his plans to watch both games.

For anyone hoping to see the Final Four in person, ticket prices are steep. As of Wednesday, resale listings on Ticketmaster and the NCAA's official partner, AXS, had most spots below the upper level at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, where the NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers play, going for a minimum of around $1,000 each — and much higher for seats closer to the hardwood.

The Final Four winners will meet on Sunday with the national championship at stake. The game is slated for 3 p.m., on ABC.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.