Caitlin Clark and Angel Reese are a major part of the rise of women's college basketball

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ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — Caitlin Clark and Angel Reese have been catalysts for the rapid rise of women's college basketball because of their play on the court that has drawn millions of new fans to the sport and their success off of it.

The pair has brought comparisons to what Magic Johnson and Larry Bird did for men’s college basketball when they played for the national championship in 1979 and then in the NBA for the decade after. While Clark and Reese weren't born yet when the two NBA stars were playing, they appreciate the comparisons.

“I would say me and Angel have always been great competitors. Obviously she played in the Big Ten for a while to begin her career, and that’s what makes women’s basketball so fun is you have great competition, and that’s what we’ve had all year long,” Clark said of Reese, who transferred to LSU from Maryland.

They will meet in the NCAA Tournament for the second time in two seasons when Iowa faces LSU in the Albany 2 Regional Final on Monday night. Last season's national championship game drew a record 9.9 million viewers. (This Elite Eight matchup isn't expected to draw quite as many viewers because it is airing on ESPN, while the title game was on ABC.)

“I think definitely those two players have had something to do with it," Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said.

Reese said she and Clark are fine off the court and noted both are fierce competitors on it. A lot was made out of Reese trash-talking Clark after the title game. Clark was fine with it, saying then it was just part of the game.

“I think people just take it like we hate each other. Me and Caitlin Clark don’t hate each other," Reese said. "I want everybody to understand that. It’s just a super competitive game.”

Regardless of who wins the rematch, both star players know they've left a lasting impact off the court.

“Just being able to have people say that she changed my life, she gave me inspiration, she gave me confidence, and I think I’ve done that in so many different ways,” Reese said. "Being a great player is amazing, but being able to have little girls or even grown women come up to me just like, thank you, thank you for being who you are, thank you for speaking out on things that I’m too scared to speak out on or I don’t have the platform to use, just being able to have that person.”

Clark knows she's inspired countless young girls and boys to fall in love with women's basketball.

“It’s super special to see your impact not only in the state of Iowa but across the country,” she said. “To be able to have that impact on the next generation is really special, and you just hope to dream and aspire to be like you one day and chase after all their dreams.”

They also have paved the way for women's players to make huge money through their name image and likeness (NIL). The two have some of the highest valuations in the nation. Clark’s is just over $3 million while Reese is at $1.8 million, according to On3.com.

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AP March Madness bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-womens-bracket/ and coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness