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Maryland-Louisville women's game is must-stream TV

No. 5 Maryland will play at No. 7 Louisville on Thursday. Good luck trying to watch it.

The elevator pitch for the two-hour show would get it a meeting with most cable networks: Revenge. Mentor versus mentee. All-American appeal. Pyrotechnics.

Maybe dragons and zombies were needed instead of Terps and Cardinals, because in a crowded sports calendar Thursday night, that's not enough. What otherwise would be a nationally televised showcase of top-10 women's basketball teams — No. 5 Maryland (6-0) and host No. 7 Louisville (6-1) — will instead be relegated to ACC Network Extra, viewed on smartphones and laptops or maybe not at all.

Who would have thought that the ACC/Big Ten Women's Basketball Challenge's marquee game would be a challenge to watch?

"Yeah, it's disappointing," Terps coach Brenda Frese said Tuesday. "We've had some games across the country that have gone to the app over television that I think a lot of people would like to view."

As women's college basketball jostles for position in the TV listings with men's college basketball, college football, NFL, NHL and NBA, all considerably more popular, it has found time hard to come by for even its best early-season action.

Of the six games played between top-10 teams so far this year, just one, Sunday's South Carolina-Louisville matchup on ESPN2, has made it to a widely available cable network. (The SEC Network, an ESPN TV property, broadcast the Nov. 20 Texas-Mississippi State game.)

Baylor-Connecticut, a top-three battle when the teams met, was on ESPN3. Baylor-Ohio State was on YouTube. South Carolina-Ohio State was on BTN2Go, which requires a BTN Plus subscription (monthly cost: $9.95).

"We've failed miserably in women's basketball not to have a Baylor women's basketball game on ESPN this week," Lady Bears coach Kim Mulkey said this month, after her team's games against No. 9 UCLA and the defending national champion Huskies were passed over.

The reason Maryland-Louisville finds itself online Thursday while ESPN2 shows a Tennessee boys basketball game is familiar to Frese and Mulkey. It is the same reason the WNBA struggles for mainstream appeal while the NBA owns social media eight months a year: Not many people watch women's basketball.

Take March Madness, for instance. Opening-weekend games in the men's NCAA tournament last year reportedly averaged 8.4 million viewers. The women's tournament, meanwhile, drew an average of 343,000 over the same two rounds, according to ESPN, and that marked a 46 percent increase over last year's ratings.

The Terps will not hurt for exposure this year, with at least as many games on ESPN2 (six) as the Big Ten Network. (Their regular-season finale against Minnesota will be broadcast on either the Big Ten Network or BTN2Go, depending on its as-yet-undetermined tipoff). And had Thursday's game been held in College Park, it assuredly would've found a spot on the league's dedicated TV channel.

Still, it is a strange thing for senior center Brionna Jones (Aberdeen) to have to explain to her parents how they can catch a matchup of potential Final Four teams on the WatchESPN app.

"Just getting other people to know where they can watch it, I think that's big," Jones said, "so we get more exposure."

Thursday's game is a premiere of sorts. Maryland and Louisville have met three times, all in the past seven seasons, but never in the regular season.

In 2009, the Cardinals upset the No. 1 seed Terps in the Elite Eight. When a reporter mentioned that Louisville coach Jeff Walz, a former assistant under Frese, had said Maryland seemed to be taking the Cardinals lightly pregame, Marissa Coleman countered: "Well, Coach Walz was wrong."

Three years later, Maryland eliminated Louisville at home in the second round of the tournament. In 2014, the Cardinals had to watch as the Terps cut down the nets inside the KFC Yum! Center after another narrow victory. At one point in that regional final, "the court and the hoops were actually shaking because the crowd was making so much noise," Maryland senior guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough recalled. "And I've never experienced something like that in my entire life. The arena was actually shaking."

If this meeting doesn't turn out to be the instant classic the series' first installments were, it won't be for a lack of talent. Of the 50 players named Wednesday to the Naismith Women's College Player of the Year watch list, five play for the Terps or Cardinals. Louisville had ESPN's second-ranked recruiting class in 2015; Maryland's current crop of freshmen was rated the nation's best.

Before their 83-59 loss Sunday, the Cardinals were averaging nearly 84 points per game. The Terps' scoring average, after their first win this season by fewer than 32 points, is second nationally (95.0).

Must-stream TV, right?

"I really don't care who watches it," Maryland freshman guard Destiny Slocum said. "In the end, people will see who wins the game."

jshaffer@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jonas_shaffer

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