March 27, 2023 

A tale of two states: LSU heads to Final Four

“Texas, I'm coming home, baby!"

GREENVILLE, S.C. — For LSU head coach Kim Mulkey, coming to LSU was an obvious homecoming. In 2021, the three-time National Championship coach and Louisiana native returned to the land of Tigers and crawfish to lead a program just a forty-minute drive from her mother’s home.

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Now, after just two seasons back in her home state, Mulkey has turned this program into a Final Four competitor now bound for a less obvious homecoming.

“It will hit me tonight when we’re on that plane going back to Baton Rouge, and I’m sitting with my feet propped up tomorrow eating crawfish and go, ‘I get to go back again to the state of Texas,’” Mulkey said Sunday, after LSU’s first Elite Eight win since 2008.

Just an hour and a half away from American Airlines Center, where the Tigers will tip off in the Final Four, is Waco, Texas, where Mulkey coached Baylor to three National Championships, most recently in 2019. And in Waco still remains her grandchildren, a home she owns, and her life from those 21 years.

And although returning to Texas will be a homecoming of sorts for Mulkey, it will also be a true homecoming for Texas-native players Alexis Morris, Sa’Myah Smith, Alisa Williams and Amani Bartlett.

As the buzzer rang in Greenville, and Miami scurried off the court, Mulkey and her crew rushed onto the hardwood filled with embrace. And within seconds, a cardboard box appeared on the floor with a plentiful bounty of Final Four hats.

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But the moment the brim hit Morris’ head, she ran across the court, around the media brigade, to the sidelines. Among the adoring fans was Morris’ mother, who she embraced and beamed back at. Throughout the past weeks, the Beaumont, Texas native has been adamant that she wants her senior night not to be the designated one in Baton Rouge but to be in Dallas, her home state.

“Texas, I’m coming home, baby,” she said after the win.

And for fifth-year Morris, it’s not just about coming home to where all her family and friends can easily watch her hoop in her final moments; it’s the capstone of a story of redemption. The Texas native has spent the last five years at four schools: Baylor, Texas A&M, Rutgers and now LSU. She began her career in Waco with Mulkey and will finish it in Dallas with the same coach.

“At one point when I left Rutgers, I wasn’t even going to play basketball anymore. So this moment is literally everything to me,” Morris told reporters. “I am the comeback kid. I went through so much adversity. The world counted me out. Media writing bad posts portraying this image of me. Now I can just let it all go. I beat it. I beat the odds.”

And the Texas redemption stories don’t end there. After LSU’s win, freshman Sa’Myah Smith, standing on the court of Bon Secours Wellness Arena under the blanket of confetti, immediately called her best friend, who still lives in their hometown of Dallas. Smith, who Mulkey originally recruited at Baylor, just came off back-to-back Texas State Championships at DeSoto High School in Dallas.

“Everybody’s going to be there. It’s going to be crazy going back to my hometown. That’s where I went to high school at. I won back-to-back state championships there so I’m back in another rematch,” Smith told The Next.

Whether Smith’s best friend will be in Final Four attendance? “I actually don’t know. We’ll get back to you on that. She should be though.”

And although the Texas connections run rampant on this team, Mulkey getting to a Final Four in her second year is the story of Louisiana.

“I didn’t go to LSU. I went to Louisiana Tech. In the early ’80s, it was the dominant women’s program. It broke my parents’ heart… but hey knew I just wanted to win,” Mulkey said. “I had seen from a distance the Seimone Augustus days, the Sylvia Fowles. I had to play against them in the Final Four in 2005 when I was at Baylor. They were so good. And so at this last juncture of my career, I felt the love, I felt the value, I felt the appreciation that if you will just come home, that’s a positive in itself.”

Mulkey emphasized that this team doesn’t need to win a National Championship this year to make Louisiana proud, as exhibited by the Tigers fans decked out in sequins and animal prints who travel near and far to support Mulkey’s winning squad. And although she’s immensely proud of the Final Four banner, she still wants to win.

But throughout her career, Mulkey has won plenty. She has a 690–112 career record and is only one of four coaches to win three or more collegiate women’s basketball National Championships. But this year, bringing her team to the Final Four in her second year at the program, brings Mulkey’s legacy to new heights.

And although the Tigers couldn’t have done it without Mulkey, key players on the court also transformed this program from a nine-win season the year before Mulkey came home to what it is now. Mulkey welcomed nine newbies this offseason, only retaining one of last year’s starters. The most impactful in this last year is the transfer addition of leading-scorer Angel Reese, who set the SEC’s single-season double-double record on Sunday.

“I just wanted a fresh start. I’ve done things in my past that I kind of regret. But I came from Maryland and I succeeded at Maryland, but I wanted more. And more was to get better every single day and then cut down nets one day,” Reese said. “So just being able to be within a program where like with Kim Mulkey where she was going to push me every day and keep my humble and to get me to the next level…I needed Coach Mulkey.”

Reese told The Next she didn’t know what to expect when arriving in Baton Rouge this offseason, and Mulkey never promised her a trip to the Final Four, but trust in Mulkey’s ability to win and her team got her here. And Mulkey echoed the sentiment.

“We needed Angel,” Mulkey said. “The program needed a quick start with the transfer portal. Same thing with Alexis Morris. It touches you as a coach because they allow me to coach them, and they know my heart is in the right place.”

The Tigers will head to Dallas and make their homecomings this upcoming week, and on Friday, will face off against the winner of Monday’s No. 1 Virginia Tech vs. No. 3 Ohio State, playing in the Final Four for the first time in 15 years.

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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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