New York (CNN) — Excitement for women’s basketball is perhaps the highest it’s ever been.

And now, many of the stars from the NCAA women’s basketball tournament – including Iowa’s Caitlin Clark, Stanford’s Cameron Brink, LSU’s Angel Reese and South Carolina’s Kamilla Cardoso – are taking their talents to the WNBA.

As expected, Clark, who helped attract record-breaking TV audiences and sellouts in arenas around the country in her final collegiate season, was selected No. 1 overall by the Indiana Fever in the WNBA draft Monday at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York.

“I got a little anxious there before the pick,” Clark said on the ESPN broadcast. She later added: “I’ve dreamed of this moment since I was in second grade. It’s taken a lot of hard work, a lot of ups and downs, but more than anything, just trying to soak it in.”

Brink went No. 2 overall to the Los Angeles Sparks. The Chicago Sky, selecting third, took Cardoso, while Rickea Jackson of Tennessee went No. 4 to the Sparks. Rounding out the top five, the Dallas Wings selected Ohio State’s Jacy Sheldon.

Cardoso, who is from Brazil, was emotional when reflecting on leaving her home country back when she was 15 to pursue her professional basketball dream.

“I had a goal to be here tonight and give my family a better life, so I’m just so thankful that I was able to be here,” she told ESPN through tears.

UConn’s Aaliyah Edwards went sixth overall to the Washington Mystics. Reese, meanwhile, landed with the Sky at No. 7, joining forces with fellow rookie Cardoso. Reese was the 2023 Final Four Most Outstanding Player when LSU won the national title, with Cardoso earning the honor this year after South Carolina completed an undefeated season and won the program’s third national championship.

“Coming back (to LSU) would have been amazing for me, but I wanted more for myself,” Reese said. “I wanted to start over. I feel like I had been on a high since (winning) the national championship, and I want to hit rock bottom.

“I want to be a rookie again. I want to be knocked down by vets, and I want to be able to get up and grow and be a sponge. I’m just super excited to play with the amazing players and against amazing players.”

Utah’s Alissa Pili went to the Minnesota Lynx at No. 8. Two players from France completed the top 10: The Wings selected Carla Leite at No. 9, and the Connecticut Sun with the 10th pick chose Leila Lacan.

The crowd roared for the hometown New York Liberty’s pick, going with Marquesha Davis of Ole Miss at No. 11. To complete the first round, the Atlanta Dream selected Australian Nyadiew Puoch with the 12th pick.

The buzz around Clark, who will be paired with last year’s No. 1 overall pick, Aliyah Boston, comes with weighty expectations – and potential for more national audiences. On Wednesday, the WNBA announced 36 of the Fever’s 40 games will be featured by the WNBA’s national broadcast and streaming partners.

“Caitlin is one of the most naturally gifted basketball players I have ever seen enter the WNBA from the college level,” Fever head coach Christie Sides said. “Her shooting and passing abilities captivated an entire audience of basketball fans, and her ability to make those around her better was even more evident during her collegiate career. We can’t wait to bring her to Indiana and incorporate her into our locker room with a group ready to get back to the postseason.”

The Fever had one of the worst records in the league last season, but with a tandem of Boston and Clark, it could be one of the hottest tickets in sports.

“I certainly know the pressure is there. I’m aware of it,” Clark told CNN on the Orange Carpet ahead of the draft. “There’s never any running away from it. But I think for myself, all my confidence comes from the work I put in, comes from my teammates. I know this is a team sport; that’s why I love basketball. It’s not an individual sport and that’s where all my confidence comes from. That’s always what I rely on when moments feel tense or things feel under pressure. It’s like that’s what I just fall back to.”

A hyped draft class, but the women who came before ‘are the trailblazers’

Clark is not the only reason why interest in the sport has grown. Far from it.

In the regular season and NCAA tournament, there were several college stars who delivered on the big stage – like Cardoso, Reese and Brink.

Meanwhile, the WNBA has been full of stars since the league’s inception. That hasn’t changed as the league enters its 28th season.

But a big difference in recent years at the professional and college level is how much more accessible they are to watch (and the amount of media coverage they get).

“I know people keep saying it’s a historic draft class, but I think we need to look back at the draft class(es) before us as well because they’re the women we grew up watching,” Brink told CNN on the Orange Carpet. “So, we do it for them. They are the trailblazers and while this draft class is amazing and I could not be more proud of us, it’s the women before us who have really been doing it.”

Tickets for Monday’s WNBA draft sold out in less than 30 minutes.

Ahead of Monday’s draft, WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said the league’s goal is to expand to 16 teams and said she is “pretty confident” that could happen by 2028. Currently at 12 teams, the league will expand to 13 in 2025 with a team being added in the San Francisco Bay Area.

In 2023, the WNBA had its most-watched regular season in 21 years, and the season-ending WNBA Finals was the most-viewed Finals in 20 years. WNBA attendance was up 16% for the 2023 season compared to 2022.

“I love where the game is going right now and I just want to be a part of the growth,” Reese told CNN on the Orange Carpet. “Whatever happens, I just want to be a part of it.”

Meanwhile, the NCAA women’s tournament title game between South Carolina and Iowa drew nearly 19 million average viewers, shattering records to become the most-watched women’s college basketball game ever measured by Nielsen.

The game not only eclipsed the men’s final between Purdue and UConn by more than four million viewers, but it was also the most-viewed basketball game of the past five years, outpacing any NBA contest during that period, according to Nielsen.

Franchise-changing pick?

After last year’s heartbreaking national championship game defeat, Clark’s last dance with the Hawkeyes almost ended in fairytale fashion.

Although Iowa eventually fell at the final hurdle again – this time at the hands of undefeated South Carolina – Clark’s 2023-24 campaign highlighted the impact she’s had on women’s basketball through her popularity and skillset.

She became the all-time leading scorer in both men’s and women’s Division I college basketball during the past season, was named Naismith Player of the Year for the second consecutive season and had been named to the USA Basketball Women’s National Team’s 14-player training camp roster, perhaps paving the way for an Olympics appearance at Paris 2024. However, Clark was unable to participate because it was held the same week as the Final Four.

And now, with Clark in the WNBA, that excitement has been pushed forward to what she could achieve in the pros.

Will Clark’s game at the professional level translate to rising interest? Signs point that way. But other players make that happen, too.

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