Still standing amid the wreckage of fallen juggernauts, 21-year-old Clark and 20-year-old Reese embody a star power no longer attainable in the men’s game, where the most talented players leave after one year to enter the NBA draft, often declaring their departure as soon as the tournament concludes, just as many of us casual spectators are learning their names and backgrounds. Maybe one day, the WNBA lowers its age requirement — currently 22 years old or four years removed from high school — and the most talented women will leave for the pros after a single year of college, but for now, their extended time on campus blooms the storylines and rivalries that heighten a sport’s drama. 

Clark has been a fixture on SportsCenter highlights for at least three years, draining shots so far from the basket that announcers have compared her to Stephen Curry. She has been in the national spotlight for so long that even casual sports fans have witnessed her break records, make jokes in postgame interviews, and hold back tears after devastating losses. By the time she stepped onto the court on Sunday for her first NCAA championship game, the Associated Press had named her the country’s best player, and an expanding circle of admirers touted her killer instinct and cold-blooded swagger.

In the quarterfinals, she faced off against Louisville’s star guard, Hailey Van Lith, a third-year player who had led her team to the Final Four in 2022. Like Clark, Van Lith had developed a reputation for her competitive passion. She had jawed with her Texas opponents during her previous game, and in the handshake line afterward, one of them appeared to say to her, “Call me a pussy again, bitch, I’mma beat your ass.” Van Lith continued running her mouth in the game against Iowa. After hitting a long shot, she stomped toward the sideline and appeared to shout, “Get the fuck off my court, bitch.” Later, as Van Lith apparently kept talking shit even once Iowa was comfortably ahead, Clark appeared to fire back, “You’re down by 15. Shut up.”

In the next round, against a historically dominant South Carolina team heavily favored to win it all, Clark waved dismissively at an opponent standing wide open at the three-point line, “as if to say, ‘I don’t care about you, I’m not defending you,’” the ESPN announcer described. For the second straight game she scored at least 40 points, then capped off the victory with the “you can’t see me” hand gesture. 

Playing at her highest level, toppling the best team in the country, living up to the hype of her stature, Clark seemed on the road to coronation. But the championship game pitted her against a fellow iconoclast envisioning her own ascendency. Reese and Clark posed as compelling foils for each other, with contrasting styles and paths to excellence, setting up a showdown bursting with intrigue, the high-octane guard from Des Moines against the post-prowling forward from Baltimore. 

While Clark thrives in the airspace far from the hoop, Reese operates beneath it, jostling amid the tangle of limbs in the trenches, slipping into narrow pockets with crisp footwork, corralling loose balls with hard-nosed persistence, breaking rebounding records with a knack for clever body positioning. Her exceptional talents shine in details subtler than the splashy thrill of a three-point shot. Basketball coaches often call rebounding the “dirty work” of the game, the invisible labor more likely to elicit awe from teammates watching film than cheers from stadium crowds. 

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