One year later, it feels like Angel Reese’s taunts to Caitlin Clark said a lot more about other people than it said about her.

In the heat of the national championship, two of women’s basketball’s best players — who also happen to be two of the best trash talkers — were going at it, and Reese and LSU came out on top. The Randallstown native who has credited her brash on-court persona to her Baltimore origins let Clark hear about it.

First, she directed a John Cena “you can’t see me” gesture (that Clark had used earlier in the tournament against Louisville) and then pointed at her ring finger for her vanquished foe to see.

Even if that wasn’t easy to swallow, Clark understood: This is the game of basketball. If she is willing to dole it out, she’d best be willing to take it. “I don’t think Angel should be criticized at all,” she said days later.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

That didn’t stop others from passing their own judgment, with responses that ranged from clumsy to downright racist. There was pearl-clutching, and some people wondered what women’s basketball was coming to.

A year later, we know: Women’s basketball was on its way to becoming more popular than ever. Monday’s Elite Eight rematch between LSU and Iowa should be a chance for the people who scolded Reese to reflect on just how wrong they were.

Reese and Clark have both been huge drivers of this interest, selling out arenas and driving up TV ratings to record highs. Reese called LSU “the Beatles” of women’s hoops for their ravenous fans who follow them with religious devotion, while national broadcasters have bumped up the Hawkeyes for Clark’s viewership boosts. They’re two of the biggest earners on name, image and likeness (NIL) deals, seemingly everywhere in commercials and advertisements.

It’s in part because they’re such good players, but their competitive personalities are inseparably part of their appeal.

View post on Twitter

I was at Coppin State in December when the Tigers came to Baltimore, and Reese’s star power sold out the arena for the first time ever. I was at the University of Maryland in February when Clark came to College Park, wedging my shoulders in the throngs waiting on the steps to get a glimpse of basketball’s all-time leading scorer (man or woman). The environments were electric, with collective breaths drawniin every time Reese or Clark touched the ball.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

There is real energy and excitement around women’s hoops, and a lot of it boils down to something the game’s promoters have finally figured out: When you let female athletes be themselves, when their authenticity shines through, it’s really, really fun to watch.

There are people who can articulate much better than I can about the policing of women’s behavior, both on the court and off.

My Banner colleague Leslie Streeter wrote last April that the outrage toward Reese had strong racist overtones: “They didn’t have to call Reese an angry Black woman. They just said ‘aggressive.’ With the hard ‘R.’”

My former colleague Mirjam Swanson at Southern California News Group wrote just this week that the double standard around trash talk drives her up a wall: “Would you tee up a press conference question for Patrick Beverley or Russell Westbrook like what Reese got Sunday morning: ‘I’m wondering, do you use [trash talk] as part of your strategy or to try to get opponents off their game?’ Oh, I wish you would! But if not, then do not.”

These concepts are only novel to someone who hasn’t been paying attention to women’s hoops. The athletes have been jawing forever because trash talk has been ingrained in basketball culture forever. It’s just now, as more people tune in, that the athletes are done apologizing for the competitors they are.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Reese plays the game hard and aggressively, and she talks trash the same way. But she also knows the line. When a fight erupted in the SEC tournament between her teammate Flau’jae Johnson and South Carolina center Kamilla Cardoso, Reese was caught on camera walking away from the fracas — “As a person at my STATUS, sometimes you have to walk away from certain situations,” she wrote on X.

Reese may enjoy provoking her opponents, but she’s not as hot-headed as some portray her. Talking smack is part of the game. Laying hands is not.

In reality, you could not be more cordial competitors than Reese and Clark have been leading up to this game.

“What they’re doing for women’s basketball and the way their fans support is tremendous,” said Clark of LSU, the team that taunted her at the end of last year’s final. “It’s been fun to watch.”

You can bet that Reese will be coming for Clark again, but only in that 40-minute stretch.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

“Once we get out between those lines, if I see you walking down the street, it’s like, ‘Hey, girl, what’s up, let’s hang out,’” Reese said Sunday. “I think people just take it like we hate each other. Me and Caitlin Clark don’t hate each other.”

But when it’s win or go home, Clark and Reese get fired up. They understand their rivalry makes for great entertainment.

“I think if I was just a basketball fan in general, I’d be glued to the TV like no other,” Clark said, incidentally describing my weekend exactly.

Their rivalry is already doing wonders for women’s college hoops, which will undoubtedly be the main event on Monday night prime time. The way Reese plays hard-nosed defense and has her will in the post, and the way Clark pulls up to shoot from anywhere, it’s easy to imagine their fiery battles playing out in the WNBA ranks. They’ve already drawn a comparison to Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, who used one of the greatest college games ever to launch into a pro rivalry that transformed the NBA into a much more popular league.

The success Reese and Clark have had so far, and the success still to come, is because they’re unabashed competitors who aren’t afraid to say what’s in their hearts.

The pearl-clutchers have had a year to get with the program. Here’s hoping when we watch the rematch, a lot fewer people will be surprised, or offended, by what they see.

Kyle joined The Baltimore Banner in 2023 as a sports columnist. He previously covered the L.A. Lakers for The Orange County Register and myriad sports at The Salt Lake Tribune. He’s a Mt. Hebron High and University of Maryland alum.

More From The Banner