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Pressure is on the big names to perform in a pressure packed NCAA Women's Final Four

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

It's down to the Final Four in women's college basketball. And tomorrow night, they face off in Cleveland, with South Carolina up against North Carolina State and Iowa against UConn. There's lots of star power at these games, led, of course, by Iowa's Caitlin Clark, who scored 41 points in the last game against LSU. And ticket prices reflect the hype. Resale tickets are going for more than $2,000. That's twice as much as the men's tournament.

Sabreena Merchant is a women's basketball staff writer at The Athletic, and she joins us from the arena, so you can hear their shoes squeaking on the basketball court behind her. Hey, Sabreena.

SABREENA MERCHANT: Hi there.

SHAPIRO: Let me ask you about the ratings for these games because last week's quarterfinals game between Iowa and LSU set a record - an average of more than 12 million people watching. ESPN called it the most-watched women's college basketball game on record. Are you expecting that record to be broken tomorrow night, when Iowa plays UConn?

MERCHANT: You know, I'm not sure that we could possibly top the drama of Iowa playing LSU in a rematch of last year's national title game, even though we will be getting Iowa versus the historical powerhouse that is UConn. Something about a Friday night tells me we might not get the ratings bonanza we did on Monday, but I do expect it to be a really big number - in that eight figures again.

SHAPIRO: It would be odd if the biggest, most exciting, largest audience for a game in this tournament comes in the quarterfinals, right?

MERCHANT: Right. I guess so - but, again, rematch of last year's national title game. And I think the confluence of that happening on the same night as Juju Watkins and Paige Bueckers playing also contributed to it.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

MERCHANT: Maybe I'm just trying to...

SHAPIRO: Downplay expectations?

MERCHANT: ...Gird myself against another big number, but - no, I am more excited for this game than I have been in any in the tournament so far. And the fact that every game we get to might be Caitlin Clark's last in an Iowa uniform - I think I'm coming around to the idea. We're probably going to get some really, really big number on Friday.

SHAPIRO: Well, what are you expecting to see in the matchup?

MERCHANT: Well, first of all, these two teams played each other when Caitlin and Paige were freshmen in the 2021 NCAA tournament, in the Sweet 16, and that was back when Paige Bueckers was the national player of the year and led UConn to the Final Four, as one does at UConn - leading your team to the Final Four. But in the three intervening years, Caitlin has sort of surpassed her in terms of overall popularity. She is the reigning national player of the year, the presumptive favorite to win national player of the year again this year, and the stakes are just so tremendously high. And the fact that these two - they're meeting again in the tournament for the second time - like, it's such a great narrative...

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

MERCHANT: ...Base to build this matchup off of.

SHAPIRO: Let's talk about the other semifinal game - South Carolina versus NC State. What are you expecting there?

MERCHANT: Yeah. So this is more of a David versus Goliath situation. South Carolina enters as the No. 1 overall seed, undefeated during the regular season, obviously undefeated through the tournament - that's how they've made it this far. And we get a fun little revenge storyline because the starting point guard of NC State began her college career at South Carolina - ended up transferring because there just wasn't a pathway with the deep, talented roster that South Carolina boasts. And now she gets to play in the Final Four against her former team that she won a national championship with.

Otherwise, South Carolina is best defense in the country, one of the best offenses in the country. And while NC State has come on strong recently offensively, I think the totality of South Carolina's roster is going to be a lot for the Wolfpack to contend with. I, in the interest of wanting to have fun and apparently blow up my bracket, have picked NC State to win this game...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

MERCHANT: ...But we'll see what happens.

SHAPIRO: We talked about record-breaking numbers of viewers. Do you think this is a new norm for women's college basketball? Is this level of interest going to be where it stays, even after this tournament?

MERCHANT: I do wonder how much of this is the Caitlin Clark effect because she is the No. 1 person, I believe, drawing the majority of this attention. And obviously, this is her final tournament in college - her last one or two games depending on how things go against UConn. But I think what the networks have done a really good job of emphasizing is how deep of a talent pool there is beyond her. People who have tuned in to watch Caitlin are seeing so many other players that have drawn their attention. So I think we're going to see some sort of peak whenever Caitlin's last game is, but I don't think the drop-off is going to be as significant in the upcoming years.

SHAPIRO: That's Sabreena Merchant, women's basketball staff writer for The Athletic. Enjoy the games, and thanks a lot.

MERCHANT: Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Gus Contreras
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Kai McNamee
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.

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