April 2, 2023 

Fueled by competitive confidence, LSU hopes to finish strong

'I don't know if these kids can play against each other — they're going to hurt each other'

At LSU’s third practice of the season, head coach Kim Mulkey looked out on the practice court as her team of nine new transfers played one another, and she had a realization.

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“I don’t know if these kids can play against each other. They’re going to hurt each other.”

In just her second season in Baton Rouge, with an onslaught of new talent, Mulkey quickly realized the extent of her squad’s competitiveness. But as the Tigers reach the first national championship game in the school’s basketball history, men’s or women’s, their competitiveness and confidence are why they’ve finished strong.

On Friday, fueled by a 16-0 second-quarter run, Virginia Tech topped LSU by 12 points midway through the third quarter. And with visions of past losses and college careers ending, the Tigers turned on the jets. Still down nine going into the fourth quarter, Mulkey’s squad hit a 7-0 run.

“Being able to just listen to the coaches and trust them — [Mulkey]’s been here before,” Angel Reese told reporters postgame. “The game was going to come down to our defense. They have great players on their team. [Georgia] Amoore, she’s a great player, but we have Alexis Morris.”

And with just five and a half minutes remaining, on a 14-7 run, SEC Freshman of the Year Flau’jae Johnson stole the ball out of a Hokie hand and finished at the basket with a layup, and the Tigers never looked back. They finished the game 79-72 with 29 points in the fourth quarter.

Although the Tigers finished strong against the Hokies when it mattered most, they haven’t always been able to do so.

In early March, LSU matched up against Tennessee in the SEC Tournament semifinals. After a dominant first half, LSU did not score a single field goal for over five minutes of the third quarter, and they blew a 17-point lead to the Vols for just their second loss of the season.

“After the SEC Tournament, we lost … I had got into the gym because I felt like I left my team down. I have recently gotten bigger and stronger, and I feel like I’ve gotten in better shape,” Reese told reporters Saturday. “Mentally just staying tough. I’m in a leadership role where I had to grow up quickly, and I was never in a leadership role before. Being able to lead my teammates and guide them throughout this was just something that was needed last night.”

LSU says that its competitiveness stems from a place of accountability; players want to make each other better and will be fiercely honest about it. Mulkey says how they speak to each other is uncharacteristic of the other teams she’s coached.

And after the SEC Tournament, as Reese hit the weights, Morris was ready to get on her team. After their loss, she said, “[My teammates] probably won’t like me for the next week.”

Mulkey, who’s won three national championships, is just as competitive as her locker room. What keeps her coming back is her undeniable craving for winning.

“I mean, it’s Coach Mulkey. You can’t really say too much. She’s a winner and I want to learn how to win,” Johnson said before their Elite Eight matchup. “I feel like that’s what we’re doing, so I just listen to everything that she says.”

And their competitiveness is fueled by a deep confidence. LSU believes it can win, even when the world counts it out, and that’s willed the Tigers to heights even they didn’t expect.

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“I think we have a dog mentality. Everybody just wants to go get it. No one backs down to anything. I think this team is not scared of anything,” Reese said Friday. “I think we just always come together and believe in each other, and I think that’s what’s gotten us so far. No matter what the media has said or anybody else, we know what we have and what we built together.”

And although their confidence helped bring them their win over the Hokies, the world waits with bated breath to see if their competitive confidence can bring them the same result as it did Friday.

The Tigers match up against the Iowa Hawkeyes on Sunday at 3:30 p.m. ET on ABC in their first national championship ever.

Written by Gabriella Lewis

Gabriella is The Next's Atlanta Dream and SEC beat reporter. She is a Bay Area native currently studying at Emory University.

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