An average of 9.9 million people, according to ESPN, watched a women’s college basketball national title game on Sunday that didn’t feature the odds-on pretournament favorite, South Carolina, which had fallen to Iowa in the Final Four. No team seeded No. 1 on the men’s side even made the round of 8, the first time that had happened in the tournament’s current format.
It was an upset-laden, bracket-busting three weeks of games, filled with entertaining moments big and small. Here is what we learned from the March-into-April Madness.
Never bet against an underdog from New Jersey.
One spring after a swashbuckling St. Peter’s team (from Jersey City) sashayed its way into the men’s round of 8, Fairleigh Dickinson (from Teaneck) and Princeton (from … Princeton) fanned their own feathers. And they nearly were as iridescent as those of the Peacocks.
Though Fairleigh Dickinson lost in the second round, the Knights’ stunner of No. 1 seed Purdue in their first game reverberated throughout the entire tournament. That was especially true because it came just a day after Princeton’s stunner over second-seeded Arizona. The Tigers then knocked off Missouri to advance to the round of 16 before falling to Creighton.
The celebrations of pure joy in the immediate aftermath of what both Princeton and Fairleigh Dickinson had accomplished were both heartwarming and inspirational. For pure chaos, good hoops and human interest stories — Princeton’s Blake Peters, who drained five 3-point shots in the second-round win over Missouri, plays Spanish classical guitar and speaks fluent Mandarin? — the tournament’s opening weekend is the best. Especially, these days, in Jersey. — Scott Miller
Before L.S.U. set a women’s championship scoring record, it had been struggling to score.
The Tigers started the season by scoring at least 100 points in their first five games, and they entered the game ranked fifth in Division I in points per game, so the performance was not uncharacteristic. But it was certainly a far cry from some of their games earlier in the N.C.A.A. tournament.
In the second round, Michigan Coach Kim Barnes Arico said she wanted her team to hold the Tigers below 40 percent from the field. The Wolverines accomplished that goal, limiting L.S.U. to a 35.3 percent clip, but second-chance opportunities helped the Tigers win by 24 points. And during the regional final against Miami, L.S.U. Coach Kim Mulkey said in an in-game interview that she would have turned the game off had she been watching at home. The Tigers advanced despite scoring a season-low 54 points.
In Sunday’s championship game against Iowa, though, L.S.U. torched the nets. A team known more for the star forward Angel Reese’s baskets in the paint and for scoring at the free-throw line, the Tigers were invited to shoot from long range, and they hit. Jasmine Carson made five 3-pointers off the bench in the first half, and L.S.U. shot 11 of 17 from beyond the arc for the game, a timely outburst against the Iowa star Caitlin Clark.
In the end, all the wins counted the same, and the Tigers did enough to claim the program’s first national championship. — Evan Easterling
High school friends met again in the men’s final.
The modern basketball world is often small. Elite prospects often meet as young teenagers, forging bonds that carry them through lengthy professional careers. Think LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony.
For some, though, the journeys unfold in unexpected ways.
Inside the cavernous NRG Stadium on Monday night, San Diego State’s Darrion Trammell found himself on the same court as Connecticut’s Joey Calcaterra — just as they did as ninth and 10th graders in pickup games at Marin Catholic High School, a short drive over the Golden Gate Bridge.
Back then, Trammell was a ball-hawking point guard from just over the bridge, in Marin City, and Calcaterra an excitable gunner from further north in Novato. The area is a gateway to the vineyards in the Sonoma and Napa valleys, and has produced some football players, but it’s hard to find any basketball players of note.
“It’s definitely not a basketball hotbed,” Calcaterra said.
Calcaterra, who played at Marin Catholic, and Trammell, who played at San Francisco’s St. Ignatius, seemed unlikely to change that. Trammell had no scholarship offers, so he went to City College of San Francisco and then transferred to Seattle University, where he played for two more seasons. Calcaterra redshirted at the University of San Diego and developed into a solid role player.
Last year, they entered the transfer portal. Trammell went to San Diego State and Calcaterra to Connecticut.
So, there they were on Monday night in one fitful sequence that sparked memories of those first pickup games. Trammell stole an errant pass by Calcaterra and streaked to the other end, but his layup rolled off the rim. Connecticut rebounded the ball and pushed it upcourt and into the hands of “Joey California,” who swished a 3-pointer.
At the end of the night, after UConn had won the men’s N.C.A.A. title, Calcaterra embraced Trammell in the handshake line.
“I congratulated him,” Trammell said. “I’m proud of him. We’re definitely going to talk about this later.” — Billy Witz
The women of basketball love to talk their trash, and they can back it up.
There seems to be an immutable image in the minds of some basketball fans that the women playing the game must be demure. They must accept fouls called on them with a smile, and they must refrain from celebrating any shot, lest they be accused of arrogance.
Today’s female athletes are having none of that.
The discourse after Sunday’s final was focused on the taunting that Angel Reese did toward Caitlin Clark, and the reminders that some commenters needed of Clark’s previous taunts in Iowa’s games against South Carolina and Louisville. Of course, Clark’s trash talking in the Louisville game was part of a give-and-take with Hailey Van Lith, who talks so much trash that she found herself in a confrontation in the handshake line after Louisville’s second-round win over Texas.
What sets apart the champion trash talkers from the mere yappers is the game behind the trolling. Reese set an N.C.A.A. record with 34 double-doubles this season, outworking her opponents for rebound after rebound. Clark set an N.C.A.A. tournament record with 191 points in Iowa’s six games.
There are undoubtedly fans who don’t like cockiness from any athletes, men or women. But the criticism has seemed gendered (and, of course, racial), in a way that disrespects the abilities of these women. They are confident, and they should be. If an opposing player wants to shut them up, she is free to hit a shot or two and tell them about it.
Trash talking is an art form that transcends gender. And we had some of the game’s greatest trash-talking artists on display in the women’s tournament. — Sara Ziegler
More upsets may be in store for the men’s tournament.
The 16th-seeded Fairleigh Dickinson’s round-of-64 toppling of No. 1 seed Purdue might have seemed like an outlier event only possible once every five years — at the most. But the team’s victory may offer clues about future editions of March Madness. It came as coaches and an N.C.A.A. tournament committee debate whether to expand the competition, drawing in more mid-major teams that play distinctively and are capable of surprising.
F.D.U., stocked with Division II transfers who helped make the team the shortest in Division I, relied on upperclassmen and graduate students to carry them in a tournament that had a national champion without a McDonald’s all-American for just the fourth time since seeding began in 1979. One reason for the absence of professional prospects, some have surmised, was the heavily used transfer portal, which tends to feature older players. Teams featuring one-and-done talent, such as Duke, flamed out earlier in the tournament.
Power conference teams like Purdue, which had just one transfer and no top N.B.A. prospects, will likely continue to struggle without leaning on one of those ideas. And F.D.U. likely won’t be the last 16th seed with the fortune of a matchup like the one it had in Columbus, Ohio, almost three weeks ago. — Noah Weiland
Flau’jae Johnson was serenaded with her own song.
As confetti fell and Louisiana State players celebrated their women’s championship win over Iowa, the party went up a notch when “BIG 4,” a song by freshman guard Flau’jae Johnson, blared throughout American Airlines Center. Johnson and many of her teammates rapped the song word for word while wearing national championship hats.
“They just played my song while I’m holding the national championship trophy,” Johnson said. “Quit playing with me, man!”
Johnson was the Southeastern Conference freshman of the year and scored 10 points in the national title win. She also has a budding rap career.
Johnson began rapping in middle school and appeared on “The Rap Game,” a television show on which emerging hip-hop artists from 11 to 16 years old competed for a record deal with Jermaine Dupri’s label, So So Def Recording. Johnson’s popularity on that show earned her a spot on “America’s Got Talent,” where she went viral and impressed judges with her song, “Guns Down.”
In the song, Johnson describes the void in her life without her father — the rapper Camoflauge — who was shot and killed months before she was born.
“To all the young Black girls that’s out here, express yourself,” Johnson said after the win. “On the court. Off the court. Be you.” — Kris Rhim
The Big East is thriving without football.
Exactly a decade ago, several football-playing schools, including Syracuse and Connecticut, left the Big East Conference for the greener pastures of increased television revenue and the chance to compete in the new four-team College Football Playoff.
The so-called “Catholic 7,” a group including Villanova, Georgetown and St. John’s, worked to stick together under the banner of the Big East — and got to keep its postseason tournament for men’s basketball at Madison Square Garden.
Still, there were massive questions about the future of the league. Would it be able to survive amid the shifting landscape of realignment and without football money?
A decade later, it’s hard to imagine things going much better for the Big East. With Connecticut’s win Monday night, the conference has won three of the past seven national championships in men’s basketball. And dating back to 1999, the league has won eight titles; only the Atlantic Coast Conference has as many during that span. Connecticut’s five titles since 1999 are more than any conference during that span except the A.C.C. and Big East.
What’s more, the Big East is adding Rick Pitino at St. John’s next season, while Ed Cooley shifted to Georgetown from Providence. If they can rebuild those downtrodden yet tradition-rich programs, the Big East will be even more of a force nationally.
“The Big East was the best conference in the country this year,” Hurley said to conclude his news conference on Monday night. “We were the most successful in the N.C.A.A. tournament, and we have the national championship. So we were the best league in the country this year. And I don’t think that’s going to change. With the type of coaches that now have moved around, I don’t think we’re going anywhere. I know we’re not.” — Adam Zagoria
The pep bands care — a lot.
Last week in Kansas City, as the final seconds ticked off the clock in Miami’s regional final win over Texas, my gaze kept drifting back toward the Hurricanes’ pep band, which seemed to be experiencing as much unfiltered joy as the athletes.
Jay Rees, the band’s ponytailed director, smiled and clapped. The band’s bass player and drummer gave each other thundering high-fives and power hugs. The tenor sax player looked up at the ceiling and thumped his chest.
But they still had work to do. When the buzzer actually sounded, they launched back into song.
As my colleague Talya Minsberg nicely pointed out in a piece last week, pep bands are among teams’ most dedicated supporters, but they rarely enjoy any spotlight. As the Miami players celebrated, taking turns cutting down pieces of the net, the band waited patiently along the baseline. Finally, when almost everyone had cleared the court, when the arena was eerily quiet, Rees negotiated with a security guard to let the band take a quick picture on the court.
“Yay!” the musicians said in unison when they saw him wave them onto the floor.
They stood on the platform at midcourt. They posed for some photos. They laughed as they picked confetti off the floor and tossed it in the air. Then Rees started waving his arms again.
“We’re not supposed to be here, so let’s go,” he said, as the players skipped happily toward the tunnel. — Andrew Keh
Have black and gold, will travel.
The Iowa fandom was something to behold at the women’s N.C.A.A. tournament this year. Hordes of fans dedicated their month to making sure Caitlin Clark and the rest of the Hawkeyes had a home-court advantage wherever they went, and they stopped at nothing to get there.
I spoke with fans in Seattle who decided to drive cross-country — 29 hours — for the chance to support the team on their path to the championship game. Thousands followed Iowa again to Dallas to witness the team’s first Final Four berth since 1983.
There were kids sporting temporary tattoos, grandparents who were longtime season-ticket holders and full extended families — sometimes neighborhoods — that caravaned to create satellite versions of Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
There are no professional sports teams in Iowa, many fans noted, so this was it. This was as good as it gets. And based on the volume of the cheers in the stadium, that was pretty darn good, even if the team was one win short of a championship. — Talya Minsberg
Clang went the ball.
Sometimes the laws of physics are punishment enough.
Alijah Martin of Florida Atlantic learned that as the energy was transferred (but never lost) between the basketball he was trying to throw down like an NBA Jam animation and the rim that sent said ball flying as high as the clock above the backboard that was winding to zero, ending his team’s win over Fairleigh Dickinson.
It was an acrobatic dunk attempt, sure, but really it was meant as a nonverbal declaration that the Owls, not the 16th-seeded Knights, were the darling heading to the men’s round of 16, as if the 78-70 score wasn’t enough by itself.
Martin, briefly, became a March Madness heel, with Coach Dusty May proceeding to make several apologies, starting with one to his counterpart, Tobin Anderson, in the handshake line. The internet, of course, was outraged. May atoned again on “The Jim Rome Show,” where he oh-so-sincerely conceded that “the 360 left hand probably had a little bit too much sauce on it.”