April 10, 2024 

The Weekly Fast Break: A new champion wears the crown

What have we learned from the 2023-24 season?

When the confetti drops at the Final Four, it means a champion is crowned and the college basketball season is coming to a close. We can retrace our road to the Big Dance, and it takes us back to November 2023, when you could sense that this could be quite the year in the women’s game. There were head coaches debuting at new schools, transfers who landed in new programs looking to start fresh and wide-eye freshmen stepping into the spotlight of the college game. Some teams started their season in glitzy Las Vegas, while two marque programs went across the pond for a showdown in Paris. Others challenged themselves at home and then hopped on charters for some fun in the sun with early destination tournaments. 

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Once we rolled past the holidays and into 2024, it meant the teeth of the season – conference play. The weekly awards start to accumulate for players and coaches and support staff become weary. We watched the end of decades-old conference rivalries out west and in the Sooner State. By March 2024, regular season conference champions were crowned, and everyone was setting their sights on conference tournaments and that almighty at-large bid. How can you guarantee your name will be in the field of 68? Hoist that conference tourney hardware, that’s how.

Selection Sunday fell on St. Patrick’s Day this year and with a little luck, the bracket was as most expected it would be. Would the No. 1 seeds breeze through to Cleveland? Who would come as Cinderella to this year’s dance? Who would make a name for themselves in the 2024 NCAA Tournament? Those questions and more were answered as we watched the action unfold on the court, with buzzer-beaters, decisive wins, heartbreaking losses, and magnificent individual performances. When the dust on the road settled, four teams had made it to the biggest stage in college basketball, the Final Four.

For NC State and UConn, their seasons were on different tracks yet ended at the same spot. The Wolfpack were young and unranked to begin the year but battled together to be in the Final Four. The Huskies were talking national titles in November, but the basketball gods had other plans. A host of season-ending injuries changed the trajectory of what was thought to be a huge year for UConn, yet through adversity and playing with a very short bench, they found a way to win and return to the Final Four. While these two teams did not advance to the national championship, they elevated the women’s game to new heights this year. Take a bow ladies – you deserve the praise.

NC State was the No. 3 seed in the Portland 4 Regional and returned the Wolfpack to the Final Four for the first time since 1998. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra, The Next)

The national championship game on Sunday, April 7 was full of so many storylines it is was hard to count – an undefeated season on the line, college basketball’s all-time scorer chasing the one trophy she does not have and one team looking for their first championship ever. This title game was exactly the culmination of the season we watched – nothing is given, everything is earned, and in the end, the better team captured the crown.

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NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP – South Carolina vs. Iowa

This game set up the rematch from last year’s Final Four, when Iowa handed South Carolina their only loss of the season before losing to LSU in the national championship. Could the Hawkeyes spoil yet another perfect season for Dawn Staley or would this be the team that would not be denied?

The same team was in the way in 2024 of South Carolina and head coach Dawn Staley’s path to a national title – Iowa. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra, The Next)

Any coach will tell you that a strong start, especially on such a big stage, is vital. Iowa got exactly what it needed with a 10-0 run in the first two and a half minutes. National Player of the Year Caitlin Clark dropped 18 points in the first quarter and the Hawkeyes led 27-20 after the first 10 minutes. But there was no panic in the Gamecocks as they methodically chipped away at Iowa’s lead and cashed in on a five-point surge to end the second quarter to lead 49-46 at halftime.

The size, speed and depth of South Carolina became too much for Iowa as the second half wore on. The Gamecocks outrebounded the Hawkeyes 51-29 and scored 30 second chance points. They also held a 37-0 scoring advantage from their bench, giving them a lift on both ends of the floor. Clark finished with 30 points, going 10-for-28 from the field, but so many of those were contested shot attempts over the active Gamecock defense. Staley threw different looks at Clark, giving the assignment for some possessions to 6’2 sophomore Chloe Kitts and then to 6’0 guards Bree Hall and Tessa Johnson. Iowa fought up to the final possessions of the game but did not have enough firepower to spoil yet another South Carolina undefeated season. The 87-75 victory gave the Gamecocks their second national title in three years.

6’7 center Kamilla Cordoso and South Carolina dominated Iowa on the glass and in the paint on their way to a 87-75 victory and a national title. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra, The Next)

The balance of South Carolina that we thought would be the X-factor was on full display, with just two players logging over 30 minutes in the championship game and four hitting double figures. When the final buzzer sounded, senior post Kamilla Cardoso had finished with a double-double (15 points and 17 rebounds) on her way to being named Most Outstanding Player (MOP) of the Final Four. Kitts also posted a double-double (11 points and 10 boards) and Johnson, the freshman from Albertville, Minnesota, led South Carolina with 19 points in almost 25 minutes off the bench. Cardoso and Johnson, along with Clark, Iowa’s Hannah Stuelke and Paige Bueckers of UConn were named to the Final Four All-Tournament Team.

South Carolina freshman guard Tessa Johnson made a name for herself in the 2024 Final Four, scoring a team high 19 points in the national championship game and earning a spot on the All-Tournament Team. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra, The Next)

Perfection is so difficult to accomplish and for a team that did not have a target on their backs to start the season, South Carolina molded themselves into a championship unit. Unselfish play, all-out effort for 40 minutes and the belief they could win every game is what made this South Carolina team so hard to beat. Congratulations to Dawn Staley and the 2024 National Champions – you earned it the right way.

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Celebrate But Do Not Settle: Prior to the 2024 Final Four, the Elite 8 matchup of LSU and Iowa on April 1 was the most watched women’s college basketball game on record with 12.3M viewers. It was also the most watched women’s college game ever on an ESPN platform. Those records were broken with the national semifinal viewership (14.2M on April 5) and then 18.7M viewers who tuned in for the South Carolina/Iowa national championship game. 

The attention that the women’s game has garnered with both people in the seats and watching on every kind of device imaginable is a testament to the quality of teams and players on display. It is also a reflection of the hard work that many have done for decades to elevate and promote the game, to bring the positive stories to the forefront and to educate sports fans that women’s basketball is something you do not want to miss.

While we can pinpoint to specific moments in the past where the women’s game started to gain more traction (the Geno/Pat rivalry and the emergence of big names in the early 2000s) there were thousands of players from decades before that never saw the kind of interest we see now. They played in front of nearly empty arenas, road buses instead of charter airplanes and only dreamed of having their parents be able to watch them each week on TV. Those are the women that practiced at odd hours as to not conflict with the men’s team because there were no practice facilities or extra gyms. They laid the foundation for what we see today. 

But instead of standing behind broadcast booths and saying, ‘all of this is for you’, and that ‘you should enjoy this’ why not acknowledge them by using that platform to insure those in power do everything they can to see that “all of this” continues? If we want to celebrate how far we have come in the women’s game, then the goal is not to rest on the shoulders of a few phenomenal talents and a feeling that we may have struck lightning in the bottle. The job now is to take the investment to another level, to build a women’s college basketball fan base that sees and enjoys the game, no matter who is on their screen. We must continue to increase the investment by institutions and conferences, hold administrators accountable when coaches do not move their program forward and show the value women’s sports brings to media partners at every level in the future.

Naismith Player of the Year Caitlin Clark and the Iowa Hawkeyes were a massive draw during the 2023-24 college basketball season. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra, The Next)

Let’s not forget where we were – and where we are today. While we applaud and revel in records, what can truly make this time in women’s basketball something to celebrate is repeating the 12.3M, 14.2M and 18.7M viewers on multiple occasions. And then breaking that record over and over again. 

Violations by the NCAA: If we dig into our memory bank, we can muster up some of the images we saw come out of the 2021 NCAA Tournament. For those that do not remember, this was the post-pandemic tournament, where the social media activism of student-athletes shined the light on the disparities between the men’s and women’s NCAA basketball tournaments. The NCAA commissioned a gender equity review after the Final Four and within that report were a multitude of things that were addressed and rectified for future women’s basketball championships.

Fast forward to 2024, and yet again the NCAA suffered from its own self-inflicted turnovers, raising more red flags and many saying, ‘this would never happen at the men’s tournament.’ There was the instance of an official being removed DURING a first-round game due to a background conflict. Official Tommi Paris was replaced at halftime of the NC State/Chattanooga game when it was discovered she had a school affiliation with Chattanooga that had not be disclosed prior – she received a master’s degree from the institution. And in what was another bizarre move by the NCAA, they did not insert the standby official, instead they used Angelica Suffren, who had officiated the game prior, to replace Paris. While the disclosure is a misstep by the official herself, the NCAA must have measures in place to be sure this does not occur. 

On the other side of the country, there was the unspeakable instances of racial harassment directed at the Utah women’s team in the first weekend of the tournament. Gonzaga was host to first and second round games in Spokane, Washington, but due to lack of hotel rooms in the Spokane area, several teams, including Utah were sent to stay in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, approximately 30 minutes away. On their first night while walking to dinner, members of the team were reportedly harassed by someone in a truck with a Confederate flag yelling racial slurs. Later that evening, they again were met with more racial slurs and followed back to their hotel by multiple vehicles. Due to safety concerns, Gonzaga and the NCAA assisted Utah in moving to different hotel accommodations in Spokane. It has been reported that the incidents are under investigation by local law enforcement and the FBI. It should be noted that a search of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho generates multiple reports of racial and hate crime activity within the past two years.

Utah head coach Lynne Roberts noted after their second-round loss to Gonzaga that the situation was ‘extremely upsetting’. No one should be subject to that kind of fear and harassment, especially young people who only find themselves in that place because of hotel placement for an NCAA event. 

Spokane, WA, USA; Utah Utes head coach Lynn Roberts at a press conference after the game against the South Dakota State Jackrabbits at McCarthey Athletic Center.
Utah head coach Lynn Roberts speaks to the media during the 2024 NCAA Tournament.
(Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

Finally, we have “Line Gate” at the site of the Portland 3 and 4 Regionals. Due to the eagle eye of a fan sitting at the right point of view, it was discovered that the three-point arcs on the two ends of the court were not even. Five games had been played at the Modis Center in Portland on this court with the incorrect lines. It was discovered prior to the Texas/NC State Elite 8 game on March 31. Coaches from both teams agreed not to delay the game at least an hour and to play on the court. There was plenty of blame to go around, starting with the NCAA directing the mistake at the manufacture of the floors for the men’s and women’s tournament, Connor Sports. Eventually, both the NCAA and Connor Sports acknowledged that it was human error, and it was corrected prior to the second Elite 8 game in Portland between UConn and USC. 

President Harry S. Truman had a sign on his desk that said, “the buck stops here.” We direct you back to the statement made earlier – these various blunders would never happen at the men’s tournament. It is time for the NCAA and its leadership to take a hard look in the mirror and realize that there are no longer just a few eyes watching. There are millions and millions of people watching the women’s game now. Stop turning the ball over on the biggest stage.

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Moving Trucks: By the time this edition of The Weekly Fast Break reaches our readers, there will be close to 1,100 student-athletes in the women’s basketball transfer portal. Where will they all go, you ask? If only we could tell you and most really do not know themselves. Some are moving on for legitimate reasons (be closer to home, current school not a good fit, coaching change, etc.) while many are just wondering if the grass is greener somewhere else. There are a few hundred that want to see that if after a successful mid-major career, they could make it at the P5 level. And then there are some who hope that a large NIL check will come their way if they agree to bring their services to the next school. The portal will make your head spin, and the only thing we can say for certain is that it is here to stay. Use your mascot foam fingers to hold on tight to this wild ride.

Hall of Fame Royalty: It is only fitting that as we reached record-setting numbers at the 2024 Final Four and celebrated the amazing talent on the floor that those who have blazed a trail covering women’s basketball were also honored. On Friday, April 5 in Cleveland, two distinguished journalists were honored as part of the U.S. Basketball Writers Association’s Hall of Fame Class of 2024. Dan Fleser, formerly of the Knoxville News Sentinel and who covered championship teams at the University of Tennessee and our very own Michelle Smith of The Next join four journalists who were honored at the men’s Final Four in Phoenix.

Award-winning journalist Michelle Smith is inducted into the USBWA Hall of Fame at the 2024 Final Four in Cleveland on April 5.
(Photo credit: Mitchell Northam)

Smith has been an award-winning journalist covering women’s sports and women’s basketball for nearly 30 years on both the collegiate and professional level. She became the first women’s basketball columnist for both CBSSportsLine.com and ESPN.com and her work has appeared in the likes of The Athletic, WNBA.com, the San Francisco Examiner and Chronicle, Pac-12.com, Bleacher Report and AOL Fanhouse. Smith received the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association Mel Greenberg Award in 2019 and the College Sports Communicators (formerly CoSIDA) Jake Wade Award for outstanding contribution in the media in 2017. 

All of us at The Next are incredibly lucky to be able to call Michelle Smith our colleague – her knowledge, experience and understanding of the landscape of women’s basketball and women’s athletics is unmatched. She not only reports the news but gives both honest and empathetic perspectives that educate her audience and those that work with her. Thank you for sharing you time and talents with us, Michelle – take a bow because you deserve it.


With the 2023-24 college basketball season ending, The Weekly Fast Break is headed for an extended TV timeout. Sharing the stories of our game with you each week, both good and bad, is a true pleasure. At The Next, we are incredibly grateful for our readers who support our work and allow us to bring you the stories, analysis and tidbits that help elevate women’s basketball across the country and the globe. Here at The Weekly Fast Break, we like to shine our spotlight on those that do not always get primetime slots for game action or the lead story on Sportscenter. We are grateful to the countless women’s basketball communications contacts across the country that have helped us with statistics, stories, and photos throughout the season. Some of the hardest working and best SID’s in the nation work in women’s basketball – please know how much we appreciate you.

So, while this extended TV timeout drags into the next few months, have no fear – there really is no off-season anymore in college athletics. Just time away to refresh the batteries and look ahead to next season. As you embrace the springtime to plant new flowers outside or schedule time to sit at the neighborhood pool with a fruity cocktail you should always be thinking about next season. Who has the best odds to be the 2025 National Champion? Will we have a repeat? Will a new, fresh face burst onto the scene and dazzle us with their talents? Do “old” rosters really have an advantage? We will be ready for all of it.

Written by Missy Heidrick

I am a retired Kansas State shooting guard and spent almost 20 years working in Higher Education and Division 1 athletics. I am currently a basketball analyst for television and radio, contributing correspondent at The Next, Locked on Women's Basketball podcast host, WBB Naismith Award board of selectors member and run my own consulting business. I am a proud mother of two and wife to a patient husband who is almost as big of a sports junkie as I am!

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