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'It's just the start'

Jayhawks thrilled to see growth of women's basketball during 2023-24 season; believe even better days are on the way

5 min read
KU seniors Holly Kersgieter and Taiyanna Jackson celebrate a KU win at the Big 12 tournament in early March at T-Mobile Center in Kansas City, Missouri. [Chance Parker photo]

Sunday marked the end of the 2023-24 women’s college basketball season, with unbeaten South Carolina being crowned the 2024 national champ after knocking off Iowa and Caitlin Clark, 87-75, in Cleveland.

According to reports, that game drew 18.7 million viewers, which made it the most-watched basketball game of any kind — men’s or women’s, college or professional — in the past five years.

In fact, the only sporting events to draw more viewers than that since 2019 were football, the World Cup and the Olympics. According to a report from The Associated Press, the women’s title game drew an audience that was 89% larger than the title game in 2023 and 285% larger than the title game from 2022.

Clark and her insane talent and pursuit of just about every scoring and 3-point record imaginable, played a huge role in that. But her influence was merely one piece of the pie in what was a monster season for women’s basketball at the college level.

Clark broke the women’s scoring record and passed Pistol Pete’s all-time NCAA scoring mark. Wherever she went and whoever she played, Clark’s presence drew crowds like the game has never quite seen.

Even after suffering a tough loss in her final game with the Hawkeyes, South Carolina coach Dawn Staley took time out of her celebration to praise what Clark did for women’s basketball, calling her one of the true GOATs of the women’s game.

While that scene and experience was happening at the highest level of the game, the KU women’s basketball program was both experiencing its own version of it in Lawrence and getting a feel for the ripple effects when postseason play rolled around.

“Someone asked me the other day, ‘Are you sad that you're leaving; now the game is where it's at (and) you don't get to be a part of it anymore,’” KU senior Holly Kersgieter said before the Jayhawks bowed out in a second-round matchup against USC. “Honestly, no, because just knowing that I was a small, small part of it is kind of memorable and sentimental to me.”

Kersgieter was a massive part of it in Lawrence.

She leaves KU as one of the program’s all-time leading scorers and 3-point queen. And her leadership, drive and steady work ethic and approach to the game helped elevate the KU program to new heights, which coincided with the women’s game, in general, reaching new levels of respect and interest.

So, too, did program records set by Kersgieter's teammates Zakiyah Franklin and Taiyanna Jackson, all three of whom attracted big time attention to the KU program during their final season in town.

KU's starting five waits for the pregame video to finish during a second-round matchup against eventual NCAA Tournament No. 1 seed Texas at the Big 12 tournament. [Chance Parker photo]

Kansas played in the NCAA Tournament in two of their final three seasons and moved on from Big 12 cellar dweller to a program that you had to bring it against to beat. This year's Jayhawks also became the first Kansas team to play their postseason conference tournament at T-Mobile Center, sharing billing with the men's product a week later.

“Leaving it better than kind of where I found it is really important,” she said. “Seeing (the game) grow to where it is now, I think it's awesome. The fact that we (played) on ESPN is crazy. There (were) celebrities at the game. That's crazy.”

While Kersgieter’s experience came at the end of her career, KU freshman S’Mya Nichols’ first taste of it came at the beginning of hers.

“It’s exciting, for sure, because it's just the start,” Nichols said during the Jayhawks’ tourney run. “It just started about two years ago, where people started really noticing just women's sports in general. And just seeing where it's at right now and knowing that there's still so much ahead when it comes to women's sports, I think it's exciting to see.”

Nichols has a chance to be as big a part of it as any Jayhawk, maybe ever.

While her stats may never quite measure up to legendary Jayhawk Lynette Woodard’s — although, to date, they’re better than any KU freshman not named Woodard’s — Nichols is playing at a time when exposure and attention and appreciation for the brand of basketball that women play is at an all-time high.

Because of that, Nichols has a chance to be one of the best-known Jayhawks of all-time, both locally and on a national level.

Look no further than the handshake line that followed the final game of KU’s season. There, with players from both teams exchanging high-fives and “good games,” you saw USC freshman JuJu Watkins pause for a moment to give Nichols a little extra love.

Watkins, you may remember, is the player that legendary UConn women’s coach Geno Auriemma shared a joke with after UConn knocked off USC to get to the Final Four.

When asked what he said to Watkins in their handshake line, Auriemma said simply, “Go pro,” as if to suggest that he’d just assume never have to coach against her again.

Nichols has the potential to make that kind of impact and no doubt caused coaches throughout the Big 12 to have similar thoughts.

It will take KU winning for the vision of Nichols as one of the nation’s best to come to life. But stats aside, winning is all that Nichols really cares about, so that will be her focus as her career moves forward and she gets to put her own stamp on the growth of the women’s game.

All of this — Nichols’ return and potential, Kersgieter’s impact, the rise in interest in women’s basketball — is absolute gold in the eyes of KU coach Brandon Schneider.

And he, like Nichols, believes things are just beginning.

“Well, my dad spent 46 years in women's basketball, so growing up around it, it's come a long, long way,” Schneider said last month. “And to now be able to witness it firsthand and compete against so many of these great coaches and players, it's really special. I think it's not going anywhere. When you think about — arguably, Caitlin Clark right now is carrying the torch — but it's going to be a pretty seamless hand-off to the next great player. It's probably JuJu. And hopefully there's a young girl out there right now dreaming of being the next Caitlin Clark or the next JuJu Watkins or the next S'Mya Nichols or whatever. It's been cool to witness.”

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