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The Echo
Taylor University, Upland, IN
Thursday, May 30, 2024
The Echo
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March Madness 2024 features ‘Two Shining Moments’

UConn, South Carolina leave as champs

Each iteration of ‘One Shining Moment’ gives me chills and nearly makes me tear up just a little, though I’ll never admit that to anyone. But this year was going to be different.

Every year it gets me. Every year! Something about March Madness just hits in a way that no other tournament does. 

The victories, the buzzer-beaters and the schools with enrollments smaller than 4,000 students taking down juggernauts are always there. However, this year’s men’s and women’s brackets were not supposed to be as enthralling and upset-filled.

Instead, both tournaments were full of high-powered contenders with something to prove.

On the men’s side, there was North Carolina. After completely missing the tournament the year prior, the Tar Heels boasted a roster loaded with seniors returning to college basketball’s biggest stage with one goal: avenging their loss in the 2022 championship.

Then there was the 7 foot 4 inch, two-time Naismith Player of the Year Zach Edey leading the Purdue Boilermakers. The gold and black were famous for three things: failing in the biggest moments, blowing leads and getting upset by smaller schools. But in 2024, they had the undisputed best player in the tournament. This was their chance to break the curse.

And then there were the current title holders who had never lost a championship game: No. 1 UConn.

25 years ago the Connecticut Huskies would have been a dark horse. A mid-major. Fast forward to 2024 and the college from the little town of Storrs boasted five national championships and was solidified as one of college basketball’s “blue bloods:” hardwood royalty.

Heavy hitters and big names. There weren’t supposed to be any upsets here. The women’s tournament was set up for the same story.

There was South Carolina, a one-seed looking to win their second championship in three years and become the first team to complete a perfect season since (oh, look who’s here) the UConn Huskies in the 2015-16 season. 

Then there was Iowa with their superstar and sure-fire future No. 1 draft pick Caitlin Clark. The Hawkeyes upset South Carolina in the Final Four and made the title game last season, but failed to bring home the hardware, losing in the national championship to LSU. But with Clark averaging 31.6 points, 8.9 assists and 7.4 rebounds at the helm of the black and yellow? Things were sure to be different.

And finally, there was UConn. Again.

The Huskies have arguably the greatest women’s basketball program in history with 11 National Championships and head coach Geno Auriemma in his 38th - yes, 38th - straight season at the helm. Between 2008 and 2022, Connecticut made every Final Four, but in 2023, that streak was snapped as the two-seeded Huskies fell to Ohio State in the Sweet Sixteen.

A Carolina team on a revenge tour. A yellow and black school with basketball's biggest star. UConn. Do these brackets sound familiar?

Even as both tournaments looked to be a frontrunner’s dream, March still had a bit of magic for those who believed in the madness.

North Carolina fell victim to four-seed Alabama’s goal of building dynasties in two sports. The Tide rolled through the West Region of the bracket, defeating six-seeded Clemson to reach the Final Four in a blaze of glory.

The South Region busted nearly everyone’s bracket with five upsets in the first round including fourteen-seed Oakland knocking off three-seed Kentucky and ten-seed Colorado out shooting seven-seed Florida in a 100-point thriller.

Then there was NC State. They weren’t supposed to even be in March Madness this year. They finished the regular season 9-11 in conference play but transformed into a whole new team when it mattered most. In the ACC Tournament, the Wolfpack upset Virginia, Duke and North Carolina in the final to punch their ticket to the Big Dance.

Then they beat six-seed Texas Tech. Then they beat Oakland. Then they beat two-seeded Marquette and danced into the Elite Eight after taking out in-state rival Duke 76-64.

Even after the Wolfpack and the Crimson Tide fell to Connecticut and Purdue in the Final Four, the two titans gave a duel for the ages. Edey’s 37-point double-double wasn’t enough as Purdue once again succumbed to fate. The Huskies repeated as champions in a 75-60 victory.

As he cut down the net, Connecticut coach Dan Hurley held up six fingers, the number of championships the Huskies now have in their trophy cabinet.

Meanwhile, March’s sister tournament was far less hectic. Women’s college basketball is a top-heavy sport – rarely will you see a mid to low-seed make the Final Four, and this year was no different.

South Carolina struggled a bit against Indiana in the Sweet Sixteen but faced no other serious competition as they rolled through their region of the bracket. Paige Bueckers and UConn proved that the Huskies will never be away from their beloved Final Four for long as they cruised past Syracuse, Duke and one-seeded USC.

Then there was Iowa. Clark and the Hawkeyes dispatched their first three opponents with ease, but it was in the Elite Eight where they would have to exorcize their demons – Angel Reese and the three-seed LSU Tigers.

Despite Angel Reese’s 20-rebound double-double, Clark’s 41-point masterpiece launched Iowa back into championship territory and a chance at redemption, 94-87.

Their redemption tour didn’t last long. As the Final Four played out, one thing became certain. This wasn’t a competition; this was a coronation.

It took a controversial call in the final seconds to help the Hawkeyes overcome the six-woman rotation of the Huskies in a grueling 71-69 game. But as Iowa struggled, South Carolina continued their road to glory uncontested, sending underdog NC State home in a 19-point victory.

Even after Clark and Iowa found themselves in the final and jumped out to an early seven-point lead, South Carolina clawed back. They had a deeper bench. They were undefeated for a reason. They were a well-oiled machine built to do one thing: regain the trophy they had lost.

87-75 final. As the Gamecocks head coach Dawn Staley lifted her hands in celebration showered by garnet, black and white confetti, the game became an example of how far women’s basketball has come. 

The sport has its own stars, its own style of play and its own narratives. For the first time, the women’s championship drew more viewers than men’s, peaking at 24.1 million viewers, the most of any basketball game – men’s, women’s, professional or collegiate – since 2019 (as charted by Nielsen).

Was either tournament full of upsets? Not quite. But the magic and madness of America’s premier tournament showed why we come back every year.

The stories, the heart and the pure joy from each school that dances down to the Final Four keep us coming back, no matter the teams.

Even as Hurley was asked about possibly leaving the Huskies for a bigger job and a bigger paycheck at Kentucky, he shot the proposition down and committed to his back-to-back champion Huskies with two words. 

“No way.”

Hurley now has the glory of earning – not just one – but two shining moments. Staley now has three net clippings in her trophy cabinet.

Dang it, March. You got me again.