Sunday afternoon’s NCAA women’s championship between Iowa and South Carolina will be appointment television, the rare “where were you when” moment in sport that signifies sea change.

At the center of the championship drama are Iowa superstar Caitlin Clark and South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley, two genre-bending, stereotype defying, culture-shaping women who have kept eyes glued to televisions during the Women’s NCAA Tournament and changed the landscape of a sport in the process.

Clark, the Iowa guard with the Midwestern, girl next door shooting hoops in the cornfield vibes, will play her final game for the Hawkeyes in the national championship game, looking for a storybook ending to a record-shattering career before entering the WNBA Draft. Iowa is a 6.5-point underdog, via DraftKings Sportsbook.

Clark is a magician with the ball, a born scorer with astounding range who can create a shot off the dribble or shoot off the catch with only inches of space. Clark is far from just a scorer, as her flare and ability to thread a needle-tight pass that seems to bend time and space or to command help off the ball as a cutter have made the Hawkeyes nearly impossible to guard, as UConn found out in losing a 12-point lead in Friday night’s national semifinal. Clark scored 21 points, giving her 3,921 for her career. Last month, she became the NCAA’s all-time leading scorer in Division I, men or women’s, and her game has drawn comparisons to Pistol Pete Maravich, the LSU star whose scoring record she broke, earning her the nickname “Ponytail Pete,” a moniker that made Clark grin ear to ear when it was brought to her attention last month.

“I saw somebody call me that,” Clark told assembled media after Iowa’s senior day. “It was incredibly cool.”

Clark has spent 2 seasons now selling out arenas, dazzling crowds with her scoring ability and preternatural ability to create for her teammates. Tickets to Iowa games this season cost nearly 200% of their face value, on average, according to Vivid Seats, a ticket exchange and resale company. Fans, often traveling hundreds of miles, arrived at Iowa home and road games hours in advance, boosting local economies in the process.

Away from the arenas and college campuses, Clark’s impact on the sport is all the more pronounced. Over 10 million people watched Clark and Iowa play Angel Reese and LSU in  last season’s national championship game, and more than 12 million tuned in to this season’s Elite 8 rematch. At the time of this writing, numbers for Friday night’s Final Four contest between blue-blood UConn and Iowa were not available, but the numbers for Sunday’s championship game between Iowa and South Carolina are projected to exceed 15 million people, shattering last year’s title game record.

If you want a better idea of Clark’s impact, I’d encourage you to watch Sunday’s title game away from home. This author took in Iowa’s Elite 8 rematch with LSU at a local restaurant in Charlotte, North Carolina. Over half the restaurant televisions were fixed on Clark and Iowa’s duel with LSU, and people were jumping out of their seats and yelling at televisions, with the noise swelling to a dull roar whenever Clark possessed the basketball.

Clark’s ability and electrifying talent have changed everything about women’s basketball, from the way it is being played, to its economics, to the cross-cultural appeal of the sport and who tunes in on television.

In the championship on Sunday, Clark will face an unbeaten South Carolina squad led by its own culture shaping phenomenon, Dawn Staley.

“Imagine if Nick Saban or Kirby Smart weren’t just passionate, fiery championship winning coaches, but also gold medal former winning players — and then imagine they looked like most of their players,” gold medalist, WNBA MVP and former Tennessee star Candace Parker told NBC Sports in 2022, after Staley won her second national championship at South Carolina.

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Staley grew up in tough socioeconomic conditions in Philadelphia, but with a family that emphasized faith, discipline, and hard work, Staley earned a basketball scholarship to the University of Virginia, where she was named National Player of the Year twice. A visionary passer, Staley, like Clark,  wowed crowds with her range of offensive moves and skills, and she won 3 gold medals and was named a WNBA All-Star 6 times in a long playing career.

Staley has her own pizazz and personality, from her in-game clothing ensembles to pregame dances to her proud proclamations of faith. Staley has created her own lane as a rare black woman in coaching, staying true to herself while becoming one of just 7 coaches to win multiple national titles in women’s college basketball, and becoming the only coach to defeat legendary coaches Geno Auriemma, Tara VanDerveer, and Kim Mulkey in the same season.

Since the 2011-12 season, Staley has led South Carolina to 8 SEC Tournament championships, 12 straight NCAA Tournament appearances, 6 Final Fours and of course, 2 national championships. South Carolina averaged fewer than 3,000 fans per game at home before 2011. By 2015, South Carolina led the nation in attendance, displacing blueblood programs Tennessee and UConn in that metric.

Like Clark, Staley has also changed the way the game is played as a coach.

“The way they use speed, not just in transition but in half-court offense with players and they way they screen, or cut off the ball, or come downhill after dribble handoffs, it’s a different type of game they are playing,” former All-SEC Florida star Jennifer George told SDS this week. “They have always guarded you with their physicality and their depth. But Dawn went out and figured out how to score differently than anyone else.”

The result is an offense that has scored 100 points 6 times this season, and leads the nation in transition points per game (19.8) and offensive rating (119 per 100 possessions), per Hoops Lens. Combine that with a defense that ranks in the top 5 in national efficiency for the 4th time in 6 seasons, and you understand why the Gamecocks haven’t lost in 2023-24.

Sunday’s title game will feature the sport’s two best offenses, and two biggest stars, and both Clark and Staley are motivated by insatiable hunger to win. Staley and South Carolina also will be motivated by what happened last year, when Clark scored 41 against the Gamecocks in a Final Four victory that sent Iowa to the title game and ended South Carolina’s perfect season. Those Gamecocks were 36-0 entering that game. These Gamecocks are 37-0.

Clark works referees, fires up the crowd after makes, yells, and by her own admission, talks her fair share of trash.

Staley dances when she wins, cries when she loses, and constantly demands excellence, calling out her players just as easily as she calls out those she believes unjustly criticize them, as she did a month ago when she defended Gamecocks star Kamilla Cardoso from insensitive remarks made by a radio host, who later apologized.

Clark is motivated by her lone unmet goal in college hoops — to deliver Iowa a national championship.

A season ago, Clark was bottled up and frustrated throughout the national title game, which the Hawkeyes lost to LSU. Sunday, she’ll get a chance, but for the second season in a row, she’ll have to eliminate a team coached by Dawn Staley from the Final Four.

Staley is also fueled by last season’s Final Four loss, which Staley admitted to the media this week “rocked” her.

“We had a team full of players who did everything the way you want young women to do things,” Staley said of last season’s defeat in the Final Four. “If you met that team, you’d want them to win, and we didn’t. We ask God why, but I can tell you today I am stand here as our why.”

On Sunday, it all comes together with two culture shifting, immovable objects colliding on the same floor. One will emerge as national champion, but both have changed the sport forever.

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