The 2023 NCAA tournament will go down as an epic success story for the enterprise of women’s basketball and for champion LSU, who beat Iowa, 102–85, to win it all on Sunday. When future generations scan the history books (or Basketball Reference pages), all they will know about these Tigers is that they were outrageously consistent all season. They went 34–2, would’ve lost even fewer games if they didn’t share a league with Dawn Staley’s South Carolina juggernaut, and ultimately triumphed over the Hawkeyes and Caitlin Clark. Sunday’s win will only look better with time, as Clark, a junior, could go on to be one of the most celebrated hoopers who ever lived.
All of which is to say: The travesty that occurred on Sunday is not LSU’s problem. There will be no asterisks on the Tigers’ national championship banner, well earned by one of the great offensive blitzes in tournament history. Iowa entered averaging a Division I–best 87.3 points per game, and LSU ensured it would win its first title by passing that number with nearly six minutes left. LSU guard Jasmine Carson played a literally perfect first half in which she took five three-pointers, two twos, and two free throws, and made all of them for 21 points. (She missed her only shot in the second half, costing her basketball’s version of a perfect game.) All-American center Angel Reese, who shifted the sport’s balance of power when she transferred from Maryland to LSU before the season, managed 15 points and 10 rebounds despite being in foul trouble all game. Kim Mulkey, who won three national championships at Baylor (amid various pretty lousy things), further entrenched herself as an all-time great coach. LSU was a worthy champion and beat Iowa comfortably, leaving no doubt about the Tigers’ credentials.
But the shame of Sunday’s game is that we’ll never get to know what a highly hyped national championship game would’ve looked like if the officiating crew had not decided to make itself the star. Women’s basketball fans will tell you that officiating in this sport is terrible all the time, the result of the NCAA not being serious enough about the task of regulating the games. But what happened on Sunday was outrageous and made an excellent game less than it should’ve been. And it’s fine to point that out while acknowledging that LSU busted down the doors to crown itself champion.
The brutal officiating went both ways, as it tends to, because bad sports-officiating accrues from incompetence rather than conspiracy. Basketball is a team game, and both LSU and Iowa have a lot of good players, but the most compelling individual storyline of the title game was Clark vs. Reese. These are two absurd players who will likely go against each other for years in the WNBA, and getting to see them head-to-head in a national title game was a treat. It was Magic-vs.-Bird-ish, including in that Clark is a prodigious trash-talker and Reese is good at talking back. And their matchup would’ve been better if an overactive reffing crew hadn’t muscled its way into the game.
Some fouls are just bad judgment calls, like Reese’s second, at the end of the first quarter:
That put Reese on the bench for the entire second quarter. Whatever. It happens. But the officials were out of whack all game, blowing their whistles on routine defense plays at turns and arbitrarily issuing oversensitive calls at others. The worst, and the one that will live in the most infamy, was a technical foul on Clark with a minute left in the third quarter. Clark had already been whistled for three fouls, and college players only get five before they’re out. You can behold for yourself the extraordinary crime against basketball that Clark then committed, leading a referee to give her foul No. 4:
Indeed. Officials effectively forced Iowa to bench the best player in the country with four fouls, because she had the audacity to lightly flick a basketball in the direction of a sideline after a foul was called against her team. (Another camera angle showed Clark said nothing.) Clark was back on the floor for the start of the fourth quarter. Iowa was trailing, and as her coach, Lisa Bluder, told ABC in a sideline interview, she had no serious choice but to put Clark back in. But playing with four fouls is difficult work, and Clark had to be a bit tepid on defense for the rest of the game. She wound up playing 35 minutes, quite a lot considering she’d gotten her third foul before the second quarter was even over. Clark’s third foul, a charge, also did not look like a foul to me, but reasonable people could disagree on that one. The technical was most egregious, in particular considering that Mulkey was visibly all over the officials the entire game and did not receive a technical. In at least one case, LSU’s coach put her hands on a referee and swiped, something that seems more worthy of a technical foul than whatever Clark did(n’t) do. All we’re asking, here, is for officials not to make themselves differentiators in a big game.
The officiating calamity is especially upsetting considering all the eyeballs that were on this game. Women’s basketball is on fire right now. There’s a good chance that we’ll soon learn this championship game got record TV ratings. Every possible business indicator says that the Final Four this year was bigger than ever, despite the NCAA still pitting the women’s event against a men’s event at the same time. LSU–Iowa was an advertisement for a rapidly growing sport. Some putrid officiating won’t change that, but it’s a bummer that the zebras didn’t give the players a chance to sort things out for themselves.
LSU’s great strength in this game was that the Tigers, in so few words, rose above the bullshit. As the All-American Reese sat for the entire second quarter in the wake of the lousy second foul call against her, her team won the quarter by a 32–20 margin to take a 17-point lead into halftime. Iowa wasn’t able to deal nearly as effectively with Clark’s ref-induced sitting, because Iowa isn’t built to do that. Clark is not Iowa’s whole team, but sometimes it can feel that way, as when she scored 41 points in a national semifinal win over unbeaten South Carolina and scored or assisted on every single Hawkeye basket in the fourth quarter. Iowa wasn’t built to withstand Clark being anything less than herself. Maybe that wouldn’t have been required if the people officiating the game had not become such a central part of its story.