Why UConn’s dominance is good for women’s basketball
The diminutive guard controlled the ball at the top of the key, clock winding but time frozen. A screen came and the switch was made, isolating the confident scorer with the opposing star. Dribble, dribble, side to side, face to face, the right wing enveloped the entire world. The ancillary eyeballs shined a spotlight on the basketball, daring it to rise to the occasion. Up the ball went, down in a championship arc, through the net at the center of the universe.
The shot fell, bringing a dynasty with it. In one of basketball’s most historic, legendary, memorable scenes, a forever moment was painted.
If you think I’m describing Kyrie Irving’s shot over Stephen Curry to win Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals, you would be correct. But I’m not.
I’m describing Arike Ogunbowale’s shot over Napheesa Collier to advance to the national championship of the 2018 NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Tournament.
And that wasn’t all. After Ogunbowale delivered the victory, Kobe Bryant first congratulated her, then dared her to finish the job. So, at the horn of a 58-58 national championship, Ogunbowale took the inbound, rose again and delivered the title. Bryant, he of the “Mamba Mentality,” could not have executed greatness better himself.
But great moments are born from great opportunity, and the opportunity couldn’t have been greater.
Ogunbowale’s Notre Dame University and the University of Connecticut share one of basketball’s elite rivalries, but the Fighting Irish entered the semifinal matchup on a seven-game losing streak against the Huskies, including two consecutive championship game losses and another Final Four elimination the year prior.
Still, Notre Dame is one of UConn’s true, rare foes. Notre Dame won seven of the previous eight head-to-heads, including two semifinals of its own and three straight in a UConn championship season, twice on the Huskies’ home floor. The Fighting Irish were the only team to eliminate UConn from the playoffs from 2009 to 2016.
But they didn’t get a ring out of it. Each time, they lost in the final, unlike in 2001, when they beat UConn in St. Louis in the middle of UConn’s four-titles-in-five-years run, then finished the job for its only national championship.
To finish the job in 2018, to capitalize on besting undefeated UConn, Ogunbowale and the Fighting Irish had to go through another team trying to do so: Mississippi State University. A year earlier, the Bulldogs pulled off one of the most unbelievable upsets of all time, toppling the Huskies on an overtime buzzer beater in the Final Four to end UConn’s 111-game winning streak. But Mississippi State bowed to the University of South Carolina the next game, ultimately left with nothing to show for its improbable effort.
Mississippi State’s return to the championship set up a battle of two teams that had accomplished one of the era’s most impressive feats, without the representative hardware. And this time, Ogunbowale finished the job.
It wouldn’t have been the same without the challenge or context presented by UConn. Without UConn’s overwhelming dominance—over half of the 19 championships this century, including a repeat, three-peat and four-peat—a championship by any other team remains the pinnacle of the sport, but not an especially recognizable accomplishment. With an antagonist of the highest order, every non-UConn title is accompanied by the shock of the Cleveland Cavaliers beating the 73-9 Golden State Warriors or the New York Giants beating the 18-0 New England Patriots, not lost in the routine of annual competition.
Those who argue UConn is bad for women’s basketball typically assert that dominance is boring. But you’re not watching Notre Dame’s 87-72 regular season victory over Syracuse University any more than a less-competitive 113-57 UConn win over Temple University. No, we watch for the highest level of heat, for two behemoths to go at each other with everything at stake.
UConn raises the bar in the way the Warriors and Patriots set the standard, winning often and frustratingly enough to act as a villain, a target, a Goliath. But more importantly, David emerges enough to feel realistic. And when it happens, well—the bigger they are, the harder they fall.
Above all, UConn brings attention to and forces conversation about an otherwise forgotten sport. The WNBA attracts so little that its players often earn more overseas; UConn’s success at least generates buzz around the college game. It’s the Tiger Woods effect—a transcendent power single-handedly seizing fans who wouldn’t watch a minute otherwise.
That’s particularly important here in St. Louis, where the city offers at least two teams worth watching. The Washington University women’s basketball Bears have made 29 consecutive Division III tournaments, winning it all as recently as 2010. The St. Louis Surge, a professional team, play their home games in the summer at the Field House and have won two championships in four years.
Women’s basketball is growing in scope and popularity. And it all leads back to UConn.