McGraw: Don't lose sight of the real problem from Sunday's NCAA women's title game
The women's championship game between LSU and Iowa was destined to set records for a large viewing audience.
So what was the better outcome for the sport: a great game everyone wanted to talk about, or a swampy mess that made people angry?
Unfortunately, we got Option No. 2, along with the corresponding hot takes. My wish would be less focus on taunts and celebrations, and more on Sunday's biggest problem: how the referees allowed LSU coach Kim Mulkey to make the foul calls.
This has been an issue in the men's game for a few decades. A coach that sits higher in the game's hierarchy generally expects to get more calls, especially at the end of games.
It was as tedious watching Duke grab and hold all over the court in the waning minutes of close games as it was listening to Mike Kryzyzewski's explanation of why his team always shot more free throws: "We teach our players to be aware of the foul situation." And Krzyzewski wasn't the only coach to benefit from the strange habit of referee reverence.
Mulkey is best known for coaching Brittney Griner at Baylor and for wearing garish outfits on the sideline. She jumped from Baylor to LSU two years ago. Earlier in this year's tournament, she wore fringed sleeves as well as sleeves adorned with pink flowers.
Mulkey might have been slow-playing for the grand finale. When she walked into the title game wearing a shiny, tiger-striped suit, no one thought much of it. But she certainly couldn't be missed on the sideline, when every reaction to a foul called against LSU was theatrical disbelief.
In the second quarter, LSU fouled Iowa star Caitlin Clark, the whistle blew and Mulkey reacted as if the referee had slapped her mother in the face. Not long after, an LSU player fouled Clark, flailed backward and drew an offensive foul. Then it happened again and the star of the tournament had 3 fouls with 3:26 left in the first half.
Others might see these plays differently, but to me those two offensive fouls were flops, well-orchestrated theater between player and coach, and the refs took the bait completely. The game was petty much ruined, and that's before considering all the time Mulkey spent standing on the court with no response from the officials.
LSU shot the ball extremely well and probably would have won anyway. The Tigers led by 11 when Clark went to the bench with her third foul. They stretched the lead to 17 by halftime and Iowa cut 10 points off the lead in the third quarter, so maybe it would have been more competitive. It's just a shame the contest went off the rails before it was halfway over.
Speaking of which, Monday's other hot topic was LSU forward Angel Reese and her taunts of Clark late in the game. The double-standard argument -- because Clark made similar gestures in earlier games -- doesn't really fit.
It's difficult to come up with another example of a player following another player around the court in the final seconds, like Reese did. I'm sure it's happened, but usually the final buzzer is when combatants are expected to hug and pay respects.
Reese said after the game it was payback for Clark disrespecting a South Carolina player in the semifinal game, refusing to guard her at the 3-point line while waving her hand. That's an odd angle, since LSU lost to South Carolina by 24 points when those teams met in the regular season. The Hawkeyes definitely did LSU a favor by taking out No. 1.
Taunting is a personal preference. Everyone acts and reacts differently to it, and it's always done with some risk. These are young adults; Reese and Clark will likely play against each other again or they could end up teammates down the road.
When Patrick Beverley did the "too small" gesture to LeBron James, he got it back three days later. Joakim Noah understood he'd be disliked in Northern Ohio for the rest of time when he asked, "What's fun about Cleveland?"
At least Reese didn't compliment Mulkey on her outfit. Let's hope better-officiated games lie ahead in the women's tournament.