By Isabelle Aquilina (’23)
With the completion of the first March Madness tournament during a pandemic (and the first since 2019), a variety of different players stick out amidst the 64 teams in the women’s bracket. Ignited with a video from Sedona Prince, a 6’7” forward from the University of Oregon, discussions about fairness in women’s and men’s sports sprang up across many platforms. Prince’s video led to an increase of attention on women’s basketball and a push for fair facilities by the NCAA after a lacking weight room was exposed. This new recognition of women’s basketball sparked interest in their tournament. According to ESPN, the total viewership of the Sweet 16 was up 67% from 2019 and the viewership of the women’s final was up 9%, with a total of 4.1 million viewers. Additionally, the final game with Stanford’s victory over Arizona was the most-watched women’s final in seven years. Compared to the men’s final viewership, which is at some of its lowest numbers, women’s basketball is on the rise. With this continued interest and higher recognition of women’s college basketball, three players deserve all the attention they’re getting.
Paige Bueckers, a 5’11” guard from the University of Connecticut, is one of the most avidly followed players in women’s basketball, even prior to this tournament during high school and with her membership on the youth USA team in 2019. In her final game of the tournament, an unfortunate loss against Arizona, Bueckers scored a whopping 40 points, second only to her game against South Carolina in February. She leads her team in points, assists, steals, and 3-point percentage, making her debut into college basketball far beyond impressive. Breaking a school record for points in her NCAA debut, Bueckers continues to exceed expectations for not only the Huskies but also the entirety of the women’s league. After an extraordinary season, Bueckers went on to be the first freshman to win The Associated Press’s women’s basketball player of the year. Her award was notable also for the number of votes she received: twenty-one out of thirty on the deciding panel. Although this demonstration of her capabilities has been impressive to say the least, Bueckers is not eligible for the 2021 WNBA draft. All female players must either turn 22 by December 31, 2021 or have graduated from a four-year college within the next three months. Compared to the NBA’s policy, which only requires players to be 19 and one season away from their high school career, there is a significant difference in player recognition. The WNBA is lacking in roster strength and new attention on the women’s March Madness, as well as on Bueckers in particular, has brought these policies into question. Nevertheless, Bueckers will most definitely be a closely followed player throughout college and into her hypothetical career in the WNBA in 2023.
Aari McDonald was a top performer in the March Madness tournament, losing to Stanford after a hard-fought loss ending in a missed last-second shot after a nail-biting final. McDonald is one of the strongest defensive players in the nation, ranking high in number of steals because of her speed. Her skills in several different aspects of the game earned her the Pac-12 Defensive and overall Player of the Year title. Standing at only 5’6”, McDonald uses her very agile and small body to take the ball from any point guard in her path. CBS offers an excellent analysis of her playing style and strengths. She was one of few who challenged Bueckers, limiting Bueckers’s shooting percentage in their Final Four game, which Arizona would go on to win. McDonald achieved a balance of help-defense and face-to-face guarding to both challenge Bueckers and work as a unit with her team, something U Conn failed to do. McDonald’s offensive talent is shown in her ability to both take shots and make plays for her teammates, setting Arizona up for success. She set two school records for her scoring, being Arizona’s current top scorer in a single game (44) and in a single season (890). She was also skilled with assists, her possessions generated, on average, 1.128 points every time down the floor. Although her passing is advanced, often leaving her teammates dazed, McDonald’s plays will prove to be very successful in her WNBA career. Her performance in the tournament had her ranked at the 5th pick by CBS, but Thursday, April 16th, McDonald was drafted as the third pick overall to the Atlanta Dream, as they drafted yet another high-skill guard to their offensive line.
Although Texas lost in the Elite Eight, Charli Collier, a 6’5” center, turned heads for her impressive scoring at the post. Along with Finnish player Awak Kuier, Collier was drafted by the Dallas Wings. Previously known as one of the weakest teams as of the 2020-21 season, but, after the addition of two powerful players, they may turn things around in the next year with their new coach, Vickie Johnson. Collier’s height and power make her a good fit for the Wings, allowing her to work with a variety of other strong players. Throughout the March Madness tournament, Collier was taunted by the opposing teams’ fans, often calling the predicted #1 pick “overrated.” Nevertheless, Collier remarked after being selected as the overall first pick that she didn’t let it get to her head. Merging those crude voices, Collier ignored them and played her way to the Elite Eight, and then emerged in the WNBA draft. Her upset against Maryland was due to an intense turnaround by Texas and Maryland’s inability to stop Collier on defense. The combination of her height and strength make her impossible to stop on defense with her ability to push through anything. Collier’s range is impressive, making shots from the paint and outside, using her versatile body to get the ball where it needs to be. As an impressive player and one of only a handful of college juniors to ever be drafted, Collier has proved again and again that she deserves her ranking. When she was officially selected for the Dallas Wings, Collier thanked her father, who unfortunately passed away from cancer 5 years ago. Elliot Collier, her father, had managed her recruitment letters and was overjoyed when she was selected for the youth women’s national team. As Collier remarked after she was selected for the Wings, Elliot Collier wished for his daughter to be the number one pick for her WNBA draft, adding a bittersweet aspect to her achievement on that Thursday evening. Her father’s pride was motivation to continue with her career, though it was difficult after his death. Overall, Collier proves to be a strong player mentally as well as physically and has rightfully earned her spot as the number 1 overall pick.
After this season brought an increase in interest surrounding women’s basketball, these talented players proved again and again that they can rise to the top. They have set records, overcome obstacles, and overall demonstrated powerful character and talent, making the next WNBA and NCAA seasons something to look forward to. Women’s basketball may finally get the recognition it deserves, and these players will continue to work their hardest and reach the sky, expanding the boundaries of college and professional sports.