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SportsColumnistsBarbara Barker

Exciting NCAA women's basketball tournament bolsters interest in women’s sports

South Carolina forward A'ja Wilson (22) shoots over

South Carolina forward A'ja Wilson (22) shoots over Mississippi State center Teaira McCowan (15) during the second half in the final of NCAA women's Final Four college basketball tournament, Sunday, April 2, 2017, in Dallas. Photo Credit: AP / Tony Gutierrez

When was the last time all the sports junkies at work were talking about women’s college basketball?

When was the last time any women’s basketball game was simultaneously featured on the back page of Newsday, the New York Post and New York Daily News? When was the last time that social media was blowing up with comments about women’s basketball, when every prominent basketball reporter ignored the Warriors-Rockets game to tweet almost exclusively about a women’s NCAA semifinals game.

Before a week ago Friday — before Mississippi State ended Connecticut’s 111-game win streak with a 66-64 overtime upset — the last time was basically never. And that is why there has never been a better time for the WNBA to open its season and try to building on what they hope is a growing interest in women’s basketball.

Was the UConn loss the best thing that could happen to the women’s game? Several former UConn players cringed at the notion that a Huskies loss could ever be anything good. But at the same time, they also noted the incredible attention that the exciting Final Four game got is something that can very well turn out to be a positive.

Seattle’s Breanna Stewart and the Connecticut Sun’s Morgan Tuck were in the stands together in Dallas and watched in disbelief as Mississippi State jumped out to a 29-13 lead in the first half.

“We both played with the majority of the players on that team and we knew how bad they wanted it,” Stewart said. “We were, like, put us in. We wanted to be out there. We wanted to help the situation . . . That was one of the best games I’ve ever watched. A team like that being able to come in and slow us down and get us out of our rhythm. You don’t see that often.”

No you don’t, which is why people began tuning in to the game midway through after hearing that Mississippi State had a double-digit lead.

“It was really hard to watch,” Tuck said. “I heard it was the most watched program on TV on Friday. I think that kind of game is really good for basketball. Namely because it’s UConn and you normally hear about UConn blowing everyone out. I think it was great that it got more people interested in women’s basketball that aren’t normally fans.”

ESPN’s telecasts of the NCAA Tournament semifinal between the Bulldogs and Huskies drew more than 2.76 million viewers, making it the most watched sporting event that Friday, beating out both the Warriors-Rockets and Spurs-Thunder. That Final Four matchup was the most streamed women’s tournament game ever, with streaming minutes up 57 percent from last year. The popularity carried over to the final on Monday when the game between Mississippi State and South Carolina attracted more than 3.8 million viewers. That made it the fourth most popular show cable show of the week, outdrawing MLB Sunday Night Baseball on ESPN between the Cardinals and the Cubs.

It seems as though there hasn’t been this kind of intense interest in women’s college basketball since UConn and Pat Summitt’s Tennessee teams were battling it out 20-plus years ago. That, incidentally, was about the same time the NBA launched the WNBA, which is about to start it’s 21st season. Val Ackerman, the first WNBA commissioner, often has said that the popularity of the women’s college game is one of the reasons the league decided to launch a women’s league.

The WNBA, which holds its annual draft at Samsung 837 in Manhattan on Thursday, is the most successful women’s professional team league in history. According to figures recently released by WNBA president Lisa Borders, viewership last year was up 11 percent, merchandise sales were up 20 percent, video views on social media were up 200 percent and attendance was up 4.6 percent for an average attendance of over 7,600 per game.

Statistics, however, only tell part of the story. Many players perceive a growing interest in their game and in women’s sports in general. Witness how the women’s U.S. Hockey team recently garnered public support, including support from NHL players, in a successful attempt to get a working wage. Women athletes are no longer being seen as secondary.

Said the Liberty’s Tina Charles: “A lot of individuals are now categorizing us as athletes, period. We’re now not being looked at as females or women sports. I think the WNBA set the mold for that. Now, there’s commercials going out . . . commercials to show how good we are. It’s true. We are all athletes working just as hard. I think people are starting to see that.”

WNBA MOCK DRAFT

1. San Antonio Stars

Kelsey Plum

G, 5-8, Washington

Plum, a prolific scorer, is clearly the best player in this year’s draft.

2. Chicago Sky

Alexis Peterson

G, 5-7, Syracuse

Arguably the second-best offensive player in the draft after averaging 23.4 ppg.

3. Dallas Wings

Brionna Jones

C, 6-3, Maryland

Averaged 19.9 points and 10.9 .

4. Dallas Wings

Allisha Gray

G, 6-0, South Carolina

Averaged 13.2 points as a key part of the Gamecocks’ national title run.

5. San Antonio Stars

Alaina Coates

C, 6-4, South Carolina

Averaged 12.9 points and 10.7 rebounds in 28 games as a senior.

6. Washington Mystics

Sydney Wiese

G, 6-1, Oregon State

Big point guard with a high basketball IQ, can consistently hit three-pointers.

7. Atlanta Dream

Shatori Walker-Kimbrough

G, 5-11, Maryland

Averaged 18.8 points and hit 45 percent of her three-point attempts.

8. Connecticut Sun

Alexis Jones

G, 5-9, Baylor

Averaged 13.2 ppg and hit 41 percent of her three-pointers.

9. Chicago Sky

Nia Coffey

F, 6-1, Northwestern

Averaged 20 points and 10.4 rebounds.

10. Dallas Wings

Chantel Osahor

F/C, 6-2, Washington

Averaged 15.8 points and 15.3 rebounds.

11. Los Angeles Sparks

Alexis Prince

G, 6-2, Baylor

Averaged 12.1 points and hit 41.6 percent of her three-pointers.

12. Minnesota Lynx

Kaela Davis

G, 6-2, South Carolina

Averaging 12.7 point per game in her junior season, is leaving college a year early and can learn from the veterans.

Second round

13. Connecticut Sun

Phoenix Mercury)

Lindsay Allen

G, 5-8, Notre Dame

Holds Notre Dame and ACC career assists marks.

14. Liberty

Erica McCall

F, 6-3, Stanford

The Liberty added veteran guard Bria Hartley of North Babylon in the off season, giving them a deep backcourt. Center Tina Charles is already one of the league’s best players, but McCall could give the Liberty another scoring option in the frontcourt.

WNBA DRAFT

Thursday, X p.m.

ESPN2, ESPNU

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