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Women's College Basketball

We got now: A roundtable with women’s basketball’s future game changers

Some of the best players in college basketball talk about how the game is changing and what needs to happen next

When Notre Dame shooting guard Arike Ogunbowale electrified the nation with her game-winning heroics in the semifinals and championship game of last year’s Final Four, possibly the best Final Four in women’s basketball history, it created a moment for the entire sport.

Each one of Ogunbowale’s shots permeated the mainstream sports news cycle, even yielding Twitter reactions from the likes of Skylar Diggins-Smith, Dwyane Wade, Swin Cash and Kobe Bryant — whose recognition of Ogunbowale went viral. Ogunbowale’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer to win the national championship over Mississippi State is a moment that sports fans everywhere dreamed of when they were kids hooping in their backyards. In that moment, everyone wanted to be like Arike.

Ogunbowale’s shot was then amplified by an ensuing WNBA season that many have called one of its best and garnered record viewership.

Evidence of the game’s athletic evolution is apparent with the beginning of each basketball season. Players have become faster and more athletic, and the game is moving toward a positionless state. Female hoopers could always ball, and now more people have decided to take notice.

The Undefeated spoke separately to some of the best players in collegiate women’s basketball about the state of the game, the pay dispute in the WNBA and what they would say to those who criticize the sport.

Did you watch the WNBA growing up?

Arike Ogunbowale, 5-foot-8 senior guard, Notre Dame: I didn’t really see it on TV a lot. Whenever I turned on the TV, it was usually men’s basketball, so that’s what I watched.

Chennedy Carter, 5-foot-7 sophomore guard, Texas A&M: Of course. I watched it knowing that my cousin played in the WNBA. Jia Perkins played alongside Maya Moore.

Teaira McCowan, 6-foot-7 senior center, Mississippi State: I really didn’t know what basketball was until the eighth grade. I wasn’t really into sports.

Asia Durr, 5-foot-10 senior guard, Louisville: I did. I didn’t have lot of downtime growing up. When I could, I did. This past year I definitely watched, especially with the [Seattle] Storm playing Phoenix. That whole series was just crazy.

Kalani Brown, 6-foot-7 senior center, Baylor: Growing up, I followed Sylvia Fowles a lot as a kid. My mom would turn her on back when she was at LSU, and I followed her throughout her career in the WNBA. I basically learned to base my game around her.

How would you describe the state of women’s basketball?

Ogunbowale: I think it’s growing. I think we have a lot of players that have a lot of similar moves to men — getting more athletic, getting more shifty with the ball — so it’s definitely elevating and growing day by day.

Carter: I feel like it’s underrated and women deserve more credit, especially for those who play at the professional level, for what they do. I think they deserve as much credit as the men get.

McCowan: I think we’re a pretty successful organization as a whole. I think what we’re doing is good for all.

Durr: I think it continues to grow. Post players continue to get taller and taller. You see so many players who start to play like guys. People are doing a great job with marketing, Final Four games, big-time games between top-five teams. They’re also doing a great job of marketing great players. Most importantly, as a female sport, you hear people say all the time females don’t get enough credit in sport, it’s always males. It’s a good thing to see that changing.

Brown: I think that we’re starting to speak up for ourselves. In a way, I think we’re finally demanding our respect. It turns a lot of heads that a lot of players are opening up about it, which hasn’t happened in the last 20 years.

Between the excitement of last year’s Final Four and WNBA season, there’s been increased visibility on the game. Would you agree?

Carter: Just by Arike hitting that shot, that helped us. That put her, her school and women’s basketball on the stage. I believe the Final Four had two overtime games. So I mean it’s evolving, it’s becoming better. Players are great — not only good, but great players all around the country.

Ogunbowale: I think people will tune in more if they see it on TV. We have a lot of great athletes, and it’s superexciting to watch, but we just need a bigger platform to show the games, and that will definitely create a bigger fan base.

McCowan: I think that college is really producing some good, successful players to get up into the next league. As we’re getting better, women’s basketball is growing as a whole. I think we’re doing good things, getting younger children to see that this can be an outlet for us.

Durr: The way it’s growing, it’s a neat thing to see. I hear a whole lot of guys talk about, ‘She can’t beat me, she can’t hoop,’ but you see these girls out here playing like guys and sometimes better. I love to play, but I love to be a fan of the game too.

What do you say to those who still criticize women’s basketball?

Brown: Most people who criticize women’s basketball don’t know anything about it, haven’t watched a game, and they’re just kind of ignorant. We have the respect from the guys’ side because they know the game and they watch the game. Some of them have even said they’ve taken certain things from women’s basketball. Women’s basketball has always been there, you just have to watch it.

Carter: Keep your opinions to yourself. That’s what I would say.

Ogunbowale: It’s really not even people who play basketball, it’s just random trolls who don’t really know anything. We’re respected by the people who we need to be respected by. We don’t need to prove anything to them.

McCowan: I think that they should just sit back and mind their business but, at the same time, appreciate what we do. Nothing is given to us easy. In the WNBA, we actually have to do two seasons. We work year-round. It’s not easy. For them to criticize and say what we do isn’t important, it’s a slap in the face.

Durr: Just give the game a chance. Even if you do and you don’t really care for it, then that’s fine. It’s the guys who never gave it a chance who criticize us of our sex. ‘Go stay in the kitchen. You should be cooking.’ You work so hard, make so many sacrifices, and to be told that — people have told me that before — it’s very disheartening. You’ve just got to continue to play your game. Nobody will take my love of the game away.

What are your thoughts on the pay dispute happening in the WNBA?

Brown: To have the league for 20 years and not see it change in paychecks, I think that’s ridiculous. There’s a lot of great players who have come through the league and haven’t seen a change — I think that’s crazy. I support it. My dad [P.J. Brown] went through it in the ’90s. He went almost two years and didn’t get paid. He said it’s not going to change until we make a massive move. He said this is going to be our massive move, the strike that is coming. I support it. I don’t even think it’s about basketball anymore; I think it’s about gender equality.

Ogunbowale: Like everyone says, they deserve to get paid more. They’re great players and top-notch athletes in the nation, so they definitely deserve more respect than they’re given.

Carter: I’m a firm believer of women should get paid more [than they currently are]. I believe that because they are professionals, doing the same thing that the men are doing. These women have to live off what they’re making. Most players I talk to, I talked to my cousin [Jia Perkins], she went overseas to make most of her money. I love traveling, but I love being in my country. I want to be able to go to New York and play and make the same money I would overseas.

McCowan: At some point they’re going to have to understand that we do a lot and we’re actually doing more than we have to. For the love of the game, what we want to see and how we want to see the game evolve, we just have to keep fighting.

Durr: I’ve never experienced playing in the WNBA to then go play overseas. I can only imagine how tired they get. They’re playing nine or 10 months out of the year, you think about all the wear and tear on their bodies. They want to be able to play for 15-plus years, but it’s hard when you’re playing year-round. You don’t have time to rest. That’s what they’re trying to say as well. On top of they should get paid more, it’s for how much they do.

What is the biggest misconception about women’s basketball?

Ogunbowale: That it’s not interesting to watch. People go out there and give their hearts just like any other sport. It’s superphysical. It needs more respect.

Durr: Just because we can’t dunk, people think we can’t play. If you think about it, basketball is not about dunking. If you take away guys being able to dunk, then that really exposes how they can play. You really have to think the game. If you actually know the game, then you would respect both sides.

Brown: The fact that we don’t dunk. Our game is slower and more fundamental, and people want to see girls dunk. That’s coming with my wave too. The other day I saw an eighth-grader get up and dunk. We’re bringing it, it just takes us time. But at the same time, it’s not like it’s not exciting to watch just because we don’t dunk.

Carter: I kind of just feel like people think we don’t have the same talents or can do the same thing that men can do. One thing that they can probably do better than us, which is dunk. But we can display dribbling, we can display the same amount of shooting. There are girls out there who can simulate men’s basketball just as well as men can.

How does it feel to be viewed as a part of the next wave of players tasked with continuing to progress the game?

McCowan: I think I’ve set myself up in positions to perform as well as I am now. Turning everything around, not just being just another big, [but] being mobile, having an extra drive to get better and be better.

Durr: It’s awesome. It feels good to see your hard work pay off. I’m staying hungry and humble, but I’m thankful, very thankful. I grew up as a very thankful kid; my parents taught me that. I’ll never forget and will always keep that wherever I go, no matter what takes place.

Carter: A lot of players are really good. Asia Durr, Katie Lou [Samuelson of UConn], Arike, those type of girls going to the league, they are bringing more talent, and I feel like women’s basketball will be more fun to watch and it’ll be more enjoyable. I feel like they’re sleep, but as it keeps evolving, players grow up and players keep getting drafted, I feel like it’ll be a more watched sport and people will start to take it more seriously as we do. We’re not only playing for ourselves, but there’s reason behind every struggle and every story.

Brown: It feels great. I like to think people my size, they don’t really make them like us anymore, so you see more of those versatile posts. I like to say I’m part of the old school, honestly, but I’m coming with the new wave. There’s not many of us left, true 5 players who stay under the basket. I like it.

Ogunbowale: Just to be able to play and for people to be interested in it. We do it for fun. We’ve all played in the backyard, played with boys all our lives. So to be able to play against girls and showcase our talents, I just go out there and have fun.

Sean Hurd is a writer for Andscape who primarily covers women’s basketball. His athletic peak came at the age of 10 when he was named camper of the week at a Josh Childress basketball camp.