ALBANY, N.Y. — Last year’s national championship in women’s college basketball shattered viewership records, as more than 9.9 million people tuned in to watch LSU beat Iowa in Dallas. The lasting image from that entertaining and heated contest was a final barb from Tigers forward Angel Reese, as she waved her hand in front of her face — imitating professional wrestler John Cena’s signature “you can’t see me” taunt — and pointed at her ring finger as Iowa’s Caitlin Clark, defeated, walked off the floor.

A narrative was soon born. People chose sides. They formed takes about etiquette, sportsmanship and race, and used Reese and Clark as catalysts for those opinions — much of which were recycled, tired and clichéd, and lacked the nuance required for such a discussion.

On Monday night in the Elite Eight — in a prime-time window on ESPN — Reese and Clark will take the court against each other again. This time, a trip to the Final Four is on the line. For LSU, it’s a continuation of its title defense. For Iowa, it’s another chapter in the program’s pursuit of its first national championship.

And, ahead of that matchup between No. 1-seeded Iowa and No. 3 LSU, the superstars of both teams want folks to know something.

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Angel Reese of LSU drives against Lauren Betts of UCLA during their NCAA Sweet 16 game Saturday in Albany, New York. (Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

Trash talk is going to happen. It’s part of basketball. There’s nothing that can extinguish the competitive flames that Clark, Reese or any other player has — especially at this stage of the NCAA tournament.

“I don’t think people realize it’s not personal,” Reese says. “Me and Caitlin Clark don’t hate each other. I want everybody to understand that. It’s just a super-competitive game.”

Added Clark: “I would say me and Angel have always been great competitors. … I think, for me, my competitive passion is just all about the game and what fires me up and what fires my team up. I think I play with a lot of emotion.”

It’s easy to point out the differences between Clark and Reese. One is white; one is Black. One is a 5-foot-11 guard and one a 6-foot-3 forward. One wows with 3-pointers from midcourt logos, while the other stuns fans with her knack for rebounding and tenacity in the paint. Clark is from an Iowa town of less than 70,000 people, while Reese was raised in Baltimore.

Despite these contrasts, it’s not hard to spot similarities between the two.

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“You’ve got two very talented players that have brought a lot of attention to our sport,” LSU coach Kim Mulkey said. “They both trash talk. They both make their teammates better. They both have their teammates’ backs. They have both elevated our game to where we have people watching that never watched women’s basketball before. Yeah, those are tough women.”

Reese has 5.8 million followers on social media, while Clark has 1.5 million. Through the NCAA’s name, image and likeness policy, Reese has endorsement deals with Reebok, Tampax, PlayStation and Coach, while Clark has partnerships with Nike, Gatorade, State Farm and Buick. Both have been on the cover of SLAM Magazine.

In their own ways, Clark and Reese have grown the game tremendously. Every true road game that Iowa played this season was a sellout, as was each of its home contests and Big Ten tournament matchups. When LSU hosted South Carolina for a Thursday night clash Jan. 25, it outdrew that night’s NBA viewership, with 1.55 million people tuning in.

On her way to setting the Division I scoring record this season, Clark has averaged 31.7 points and 8.9 assists per game — both of which lead the nation. Meanwhile, Reese is the only player in the country this season — and one of just five players since 2009 — to average at least 18 points, 13 rebounds and two assists per game while shooting 50% from the floor, according to HerHoopStats.

“They’re both dynamic players,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. “They’re both emotional. They’re both passionate about the game. They’re highly competitive. They’re both excellent at their craft.”

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Monday’s game is expected to draw millions of viewers too, and a sellout in Albany — thousands of miles from either player’s home campus.

And there’s another similarity between the two.

Yes, it’s the trash talking, and the swagger, fire and edge that both Reese and Clark unapologetically play with — the stuff that makes them elite competitors.

“Both of us want to win more than anything, and that’s how it should be when you’re a competitor and you get into a situation like this,” Clark said. “We both grew up loving this game, and we’re going to do anything we can to help our teams win.”

Before Reese made the “you can’t see me” gesture at Clark last year, the Iowa star did it in the Hawkeyes’ Elite Eight win over Louisville — a Cardinals squad that featured now-LSU guard Hailey Van Lith. Bluder has said that she’s had to give Clark technical fouls in practice, and it’s not uncommon to see the sport’s all-time leading scorer drop F-bombs during a game, either out of frustration or excitement, to her teammates, the crowd or an opponent.

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“She’s a killer,” Reese said of Clark. “She gets all of her teammates involved. She’s just a really smart player, has a great mentality. Her passing is crazy. … I love Caitlin and I love her game and I admire everything she’s done.”

However, Reese adds: “When I get between those lines, we’re not friends. We’re not buddies. I’m going to talk trash to you. I’m going to do whatever it takes to get in your head the whole entire game. But, after the game, we can kick it.”

Reese has often attributed her affinity for boastful language to her upbringing on Baltimore’s courts. In LSU’s Sweet 16 win over UCLA, she exchanged words with a Bruins assistant coach more than once. In a Feb. 25 regular-season victory over Tennessee, Reese told some of the Lady Vols to “get your money up” after collecting 19 points and 13 rebounds.

“I think, honestly, it just gets me going. It’s where I’m from. I’m from Baltimore, so that’s just kind of what we do,” Reese said.

When Iowa and LSU meet on Monday night, expect a great game, expect a tremendous amount of high-level showmanship, and expect Clark and Reese to be playing at their best.

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And remember:

“It’s not Angel versus Caitlin,” Reese said. “It’s LSU versus Iowa.”

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