Women's NCAA tournament draws record-breaking numbers, motivates Triangle athletes

Michael Perchick Image
Monday, April 8, 2024
Triangle athletes inspired by record ratings for NCAA women's tourney
Sunday's national championship between South Carolina and Iowa set new viewership records for women's basketball, with 18.7 million people watching.

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- Sunday's national championship between No. 1 and unbeaten South Carolina and Caitlin Clark-led Iowa set new women's basketball viewership records, with 18.7 million people watching -- a figure that peaked at 24 million viewers.

"It just makes you want to work so much harder so you can be one of those girls on the big stage," said Nicole Amend, a freshman at Wakefield High who plays for the Carolina Waves AAU team.

"I have a bunch of my family members, they were texting me about it and just talking about how they normally don't watch basketball, but they've heard how big it's gotten. So they started watching some of the games," added Blythe Ruff, a teammate and fellow Wakefield High freshman.

The Gamecocks defeated the Hawkeyes 87-75, completing their perfect 38-0 season and avenging their Final Four loss to Iowa last year.

"It's honestly really inspiring to see all these girls having fun and enjoying the sport so much," said Amend.

In her final collegiate game, Clark set a tournament record with 18 points in the first quarter, finishing with 30 points, eight rebounds and five assists. Clark, who led the country in points per game and assists per game, led the nation's top-scoring offense and shined in the sport's biggest and most-watched games.

Iowa's Final Four matchup against UConn drew 14.2 million viewers, making it the most-watched basketball game in the history of ESPN.

"It definitely has motivated me more because now more people are watching it, so it makes you want to be on that big stage," said Lyla Bagwell, a Wakefield High sophomore who plays for the Carolina Waves.

"It's really exciting because normally women's sports are slept on and just men's sports (are) always the talk. But recently since (Clark) and a bunch of other players have been getting bigger, it's been really active," added Ruff.

This season also featured three Triangle teams making the women's NCAA tournament, with NC State earning a trip to the Final Four for the first time since 1998.

"They're so much fun because it's such a big atmosphere (at Reynolds Coliseum)," said Bagwell.

"Locally, we're just fortunate because we can take a night as a team and just go to one of the games and not have to travel far. So for us, it's just a matter of that much more exposure to the game that the girls get when they're able to be involved," said Eric Hemming, the president of the Carolina Waves, who coaches three separate teams.

Hemming started the AAU club 15 years ago, looking for a place for his daughters to compete.

"I was a dad trying to coach one team, so it's turned into this has been an awesome ride," Hemming said.

Hemming said sign-ups have increased, with the club adding teams for third- and fourth-graders.

"We're in an enrollment of 175 girls currently from what used to be 75 (players) so big, big growth over the last 12, 24 months," said Hemming.

The team's players pointed to the increased level of competition and ability to play with girls from other schools as positives to their experience.

"I fell in love with the sport and what it taught me and just the life lessons I learned, and I wanted to continue that and just be the best that I could be," said 10th-grader Rebekah Hartzell, who plays for the Waves.

"We practice four days a week, so it's definitely a lot with school and other sports. You play at school and almost every single weekend you're gone somewhere. So it's definitely like it has to be a big commitment," added Bagwell.

For these players, it's a commitment that's worth it, as they hope to join the 52 Carolina Waves alums who have gone on to play at the NCAA level.

"I think it's really awesome and it's just going to be a great experience if I get to that level," said Amend.

"I aspire to be the best that I can be and I want to do whatever it takes to get there. Whether that be Division I, II, or III," added Hartzell.