Women’s basketball biggest stage needs better officiating

Maria M. Cornelius2MCsports

Before this column addresses the officiating on women’s college basketball biggest stage, let’s shout out a player who wants to be on that Final Four court in Rickea Jackson, who is returning to Tennessee for a fifth year in 2023-24 instead of declaring for the WNBA. A factor in her decision was the availability of name, image and likeness (NIL) income, which also includes other deals.

Mercedes-Benz of Knoxville did for Jackson what it did for Vols quarterback Hendon Hooker in 2022 and provided a sweet new ride for the basketball star in a deal arranged by the Lady Vol Boost (Her) Club.

Rickea Jackson

Jackson would have been drafted early in the first round but she played in her first NCAA tourney in March after three years at Mississippi State and wanted another season in college. Jordan Horston entered the draft after playing four years at Tennessee and entering the Lady Vol record books in points, rebounds and assists.

Tune in to ESPN this Monday, April 10, from 7-9 p.m. Eastern from Spring Studios in New York City to see where Horston will start her professional career.

The first six picks are held by Indiana, Minnesota, Dallas, Washington, Dallas again and Atlanta.

Horston should be off the board somewhere in that mix. Here’s a little nod to the basketball gods that she somehow ends up just south of Tennessee with the Atlanta Dream.

BIG STAGE BROUHAHA: Let’s get the disclaimers out of the way. College basketball officiating is not easy. The in-game feedback is rarely kind as it’s accompanied by a lot of chirping from coaches, players and fans. It’s an independent contractor job with pay per game, so there’s no benefits or paid time off, and officials have to fund their own travel.

For officials in the women’s game, the pay is merely adequate without decades of experience and still less than the men’s game for no reason other than gender inequality, although some conferences are shifting to change that in an explanatory story that can be read here. It’s not a competence issue as officials in the men’s game also are lambasted for poor performances. It’s the same job, and officials in both women’s and men’s college basketball should be compensated equally.

Until 2022, the NCAA reserved the term “March Madness” for the men. The women and its fans had something to say in the 2023 tourney.

With that out of the way, women’s college basketball deserved so much better than the crew it got on the sport’s biggest stage last Sunday between LSU and Iowa in a whistle fest of a matchup that sent stars to the bench on both teams – the calls were borderline to laughable – and frustrated the sell-out crowd of 19,482 in Dallas and a national television audience that was up 103 percent from last year, peaked at 12.6 million viewers and became the most-watched NCAA women’s college basketball on record.

Both teams sought the school’s first national championship in women’s basketball, and LSU wholly earned its 102-85 win.

Nicole Auerbach, senior writer for The Athletic, wrote: The players did not deserve such a poorly and inconsistently officiated game. The coaches didn’t, either. And the sellout crowd and record-setting number of fans tuning in to watch Clark and Reese did not pay for those tickets or turn on their television sets to see stoppage after stoppage and hear the screeching of the whistle.

Clark and Reese refer to Caitlin Clark of Iowa and Angel Reese of LSU, two players who made headlines both for their performances and personalities. Clark set a new record for total points scored in an NCAA women’s or men’s tourney with 191, besting the 177 tallied by Sheryl Swoopes for Texas Tech in 1993. Reese posted her 34th double-double of points and rebounds in the title game to set a single-season record in women’s college basketball.

Both players embraced the spotlight all season and had plenty to say on the court. Neither made headlines off the court. Both are beloved by their respective fan bases in Iowa and Louisiana. And both will be back next season.

Angel Reese of LSU. (NCAA photo)

Just before the game ended, Reese followed Clark on the court to point to her ring finger, which would soon hold a championship ring, and mimic the John Cena mocking “you can’t see me” hand motion that Clark also had done while on the court, albeit not directly at someone, during the tourney.

But Clark did wave dismissively at a South Carolina player she didn’t consider worth guarding during the semifinal game and has chirped plenty this season, even telling Louisville’s Hailey Van Lith, another unapologetic trash talker, during the NCAA Tournament to shut up because her team was down 15 points. When men do it, it’s gamesmanship. With women it suddenly becomes an issue of sportsmanship.

But the social media and hot takes crowds primarily directed their ire at Reese, who is Black, rather than Clark, who is white. The social media frenzy, as it does too often, broke down into rants with the use of thug, a coded word now too often used online by racists too cowardly to utter the word they really want to say. The angst and hand-wringing over Reese’s actions accelerated so much that Clark addressed it Tuesday in an ESPN interview that can read here.

Caitlin Clark of Iowa (NCAA photo)

“I don’t think Angel should be criticized at all,” Clark said. “I’m just one that competes, and she competed. I think everybody knew there was going to be a little trash talk in the entire tournament. It’s not just me and Angel.”

One of the best quotes in Auerbach’s article was this one: “From a fan standpoint, there was enormous disappointment with how the game was officiated because the best players were not playing,” said John Adams, former NCAA national coordinator of men’s basketball officiating. “There is not perfect officiating anywhere ever, but, man, that was awful.”

In the third quarter, a technical foul was called on Clark for tossing the ball behind her back in the direction of the baseline with LSU headed to the free throw line. An official could be expected to be there or in the vicinity, and Clark didn’t look that way as she walked to her team’s huddle. The rule says the ball must be handed back to an official, but plenty of players walk past the ball or bat it away. It was Clark’s fourth foul, she had to return to the bench, and it sputtered any chance of a comeback for Iowa. It’s a call an official simply doesn’t need to make and especially in a national title game.

Meanwhile, LSU coach Kim Mulkey roamed so much on the court during live action that she could have walked back to Baton Rouge. Once, she was standing on the court with the ball in play on that end, and an official tried to move her back. Mulkey expressed her displeasure, but she never got a technical foul. Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said she couldn’t even get the officials to listen to her. Meanwhile, the same crew is letting Mulkey stroll around at will.

LSU celebrates winning the 2023 national title. (NCAA photo)

Simply put, the officials had no control of the game from tip to end.

Sellout crowd. Record television viewers. Compelling storylines. Packed media rows and wall-to-wall coverage. Celebrity tweets from Candace Parker to Charles Barkley to LeBron James. The Bayou Barbie as Reese markets herself and a scorer in Clark that drew comparisons to Steph Curry.

Everything was in place. Except three people on the court who should never dominate the conversation.

Maria M. Cornelius has been writing about the Lady Vols since 1998 for various publications. In 2016, she published her first book, “The Final Season: The Perseverance of Pat Summitt,” through The University of Tennessee Press.


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