Chip Scoggins
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Little kids across this country will beg their parents to stay up late Friday night. Thirtysomethings will host watch parties. Teenagers will keep social media buzzing. Married couples and grandparents will marvel at the spectacle.

Millions of Americans will tune in to watch women's basketball. Practically guaranteed to exceed 10 million. That's a gigantic number in the TV ratings business.

Viewers will come from a broad audience that understands something special is happening, an undeniable time period for women's basketball that resembles a wave gaining in size and force.

A Final Four matchup deserves its own illuminated marquee: Caitlin the Great vs. Paige the Picasso.

Local legend Paige Bueckers and Connecticut face supernova talent Caitlin Clark and Iowa in the national semifinals. Tip-off is set for 8:30 p.m. on ESPN. That undefeated South Carolina isn't dominating the conversation in pre-event hype underscores the degree to which Clark and Bueckers have boosted the women's game in popularity with their individual talent.

One of them will advance to the national championship game. Neither of them needs a title to validate her legacy.

A championship, of course, would serve as a pinnacle achievement, but the impact of both players on their sport and in unlocking doors to business opportunities for women athletes is almost immeasurable.

This moment is a product of a perfect storm. Clark and Bueckers bring an artistry to the court with their style of play; Clark especially, with her logo three-pointers. Their creativity and confidence to attempt plays that others wouldn't dare consider is captivating. You watch them to be entertained but also to see what comes next.

Their stardom has coincided with and helped fuel wider mainstream appeal of women's sports with fans and corporate sponsors in the nascent era of Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) in college athletics.

Combined, they have numerous endorsement deals, including brand giants Nike, Gatorade, Buick and State Farm. They appear in national commercials and are coveted in marketing because their popularity spans different demographics.

Clark's NIL earnings reportedly exceed $3 million. Gatorade signed Bueckers as the first college athlete, male or female, to endorse their global brand.

Iowa's 94-87 victory over LSU and megastar Angel Reese in the Elite Eight on Monday became the most-watched women's college game ever with an average of 12.3 million viewers. Only the NFL regularly posts better TV ratings in sports.

UConn coach Geno Auriemma, owner of 11 national championships, noted that the star power featured in the women's game right now has pulled skeptics into the 21st century, embracing a sport that has long been underappreciated.

"Now they're being appreciated for their incredible talents, the show that they put on, the excitement that they create on the court, the excitement that the fans feel," he said.

The Clark-Bueckers showdown in the Final Four has the potential to be epic, though this is not the first encounter between the point guards. They faced each several times in AAU tournaments in high school and spent a lot of time in gyms together as teenagers from neighboring states.

UConn's Paige Bueckers handled the ball against Iowa's Caitlin Clark during a Sweet 16 game in San Antonio in 2021.
UConn's Paige Bueckers handled the ball against Iowa's Caitlin Clark during a Sweet 16 game in San Antonio in 2021.

Eric Gay, Associated Press


Their first and only meeting in college came in the Sweet 16 of the 2021 tournament, a 92-72 UConn win. So much has changed since then.

Bueckers was the talk of her sport back then as the first freshman in the history of the women's game to win Associated Press Player of the Year honors. The Hopkins High alum won other major awards in leading the Huskies to the Final Four.

Clark averaged 27 points that season as a freshman, but Bueckers emerged as the new face of the women's game.

Injuries the past two seasons disrupted Bueckers' trajectory, while Clark's pursuit of scoring records and seemingly unlimited shooting range pushed her popularity to a level that transcended sports. She became a phenomenon, selling out road arenas and attracting media attention unlike anything women's basketball has ever experienced.

They arrive for Round 2 under different circumstances. Clark carried the weight of being her sport's biggest star who is expected to do something magical every time she takes the court. Bueckers carried an injury-depleted UConn team on her back while signaling her own return to stardom.

"Paige always wants to be superhuman," Auriemma said. "You can't aspire to be that, but she tries her damnedest to be superhuman."

Clark plays the game that way, too. Two unique talents who have been drivers of an inflection point in their sport meet again Friday.

Grab your popcorn, as the saying goes.