March 15, 2023 

How Angel Reese and LSU have grown together

'I'm big sister'

In the final quarter of an increasingly chippy LSU-Georgia 2023 SEC Tournament semifinal match, LSU freshman Sa’Myah Smith was knocked to the ground. But before Smith could even pick herself up, teammate Angel Reese wrapped her in a consuming bear hug, walking and talking her out of the situation.

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Throughout her career, Reese has been no stranger to greatness, but integral to the massive success this year of “Bayou Barbie” has been her growth on and off the court.

For Reese, basketball greatness is a family affair. Her father, mother, and stepbrother played in college and professionally overseas, and her little brother, Julian Reese, is a current sophomore at Maryland, averaging 11.2 ppg and 7.3 rpg.

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“Everybody in my family basically played basketball,” Reese told The Next. “Me, my brother and my auntie went to that high school so I kind of grew up playing basketball. I played other sports as well when I was younger, but that’s just something I fell in love with.”

A standout at Baltimore’s St. Frances Academy, Reese was a five-star No. 2 recruit in ESPN’s 2020 recruiting class, just behind UConn’s Paige Bueckers. Her high school career was littered with accolades, averaging 18.0 ppg and 20.0 rpg, named a 2020 McDonald’s All-American, and a two-time USA Today Maryland Player-of-the-Year to start.

Born and raised in Baltimore, it made sense that Reese committed to the premier basketball program in her backyard: Maryland. Reese was the highest-ranked commit in Maryland women’s basketball history. But after two seasons with the Terps, averaging 17.8 ppg and 10.6 rpg in her second year, Reese shocked fans when she entered her name in the transfer portal, later telling media she needed a “fresh start.”

Coming to LSU

But why LSU? Reese says former opponent and now-teammate Kateri Poole put the Bayou on the map.

“Well one Kateri. She got me to come, I wasn’t really looking at LSU, but Kateri convinced me to take a visit,” Reese answered when asked about coming to LSU. “We played each other in AAU. We met in seventh or eighth grade. My mom and her dad are really cool.”

Poole told The Next the two were even best friends at one point growing up. Just two days after the school announced Poole’s transfer from Ohio State, LSU announced Reese was transferring down South. In the corresponding press release, Reese emphasized Head Coach Kim Mulkey’s “winning culture.”

Cut to 10 months and 30 games later: Reese calls LSU a “perfect fit.” And her numbers agree. The team ended the regular season is No. 2 in the SEC with a 28-2 record, and in what the school classifies as her sophomore season due to her remaining COVID eligibility, she’s averaging 23.4 points and 15.5 rebounds per game.

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She’s registered 28 double-doubles, beating LSU’s single-season double-doubles record previously held by Sylvia Fowles, and clocks in with the most double-doubles of any player in the NCAA this season. And in five of those games, she’s registered 20 points and 20 rebounds. Nationally, she’s ranked fifth in points per game and second in rebounds per game. 

She’s been named a semifinalist for Naismith Player of the Year, finalist for the Katrina McClain Award, and a member of the All-SEC First Team and All-SEC Defensive Team. The only major award Reese’s name was been left off of is the Wooden Award shortlist, which Mulkey cited as an eligibility issue.

Growing her game

Reese is nearly unstoppable on the glass, particularly on the offensive boards. She creates natural mismatches, which she exploits well, and has registered over ten offensive boards in six games, five against conference opponents. LSU played a far weaker schedule than top teams in the nation, but even in the SEC, the only team that truly derailed Reese on the boards was an All-Star South Carolina squad.

“She’s a beast,” Mulkey told media preseason. “And I say that with the utmost respect. That beast is hard to defend. You can’t keep her off the offensive boards.”

In addition, Reese has grown her game by minimizing fouls. She averages almost a full personal foul less than last season and has not fouled-out once this season, compared to the previous year’s four foul-outs. And although she’s not a particularly prolific blocker, her blocks are dramatic, including highlights of blocking with shoe in hand and volleyball-style spikes. 

It’s impossible to pin Reese’s growth on one thing, but the group around her has been an enormous boost. With great perimeter play in Alexis Morris and young talent in Flau’jae Johnson, Reese has good distributors and offensive backup in their two-loss season. Others chalk it up to Mulkey and the two’s relationship.

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“I think Coach Kim just allowed her to break that leash and build her confidence a lot,” Poole said to The Next.

Overall, it appears the team is united and ready to hold each other accountable. After the Tigers’ SEC Tournament quarterfinals loss, Morris said the group “probably won’t like me for the next week” as she preps them for the NCAA Tournament with her veteran experience. Mulkey similarly assessed the situation.

“They have fun. They get on each other. They probably get on each other more than I get on them. But they know how to handle it,” Mulkey said. “Hopefully, we can get on a roll here late …. where everybody is scoring the ball and sharing the ball and doing good things.”

Growing into her own

But alongside Reese’s on-court gains, she’s a formidable locker room leader.

“I’ve known Angel for a while, so I think it’s different knowing the person that she’s becoming,” Poole said. “I would just say she’s a big, big part of our team, and even when she’s not on the court, she’s still vocal and a leader. I think she’s a major, major, major distribution to what we got going on.”

When The Next asked teammates about Reese’s role, the first thing every single one of them responded with was her vocal leadership. And Reese, who’s known for the occasional trash talk and subsequent technical, says that the team mutually protect one another, as seen by Reese’s defusing bear hug.

“They try to protect me but I also protect them. I’m big sister,” Reese said.

Reese celebrates after a play in LSU’s win over Tennessee on Jan 31 in Baton Rogue, LA (Photo Credit: LSU WBB Twitter)

And it appears the program and city of Baton Rouge have helped Reese grow into her own. Donned the “Bayou Barbie” by fans, Reese is not afraid to be feminine on the court, talk trash, or break out in celebratory dance. 

With more technical fouls than anyone on her team, Reese always brings the energy and isn’t afraid to speak up after it. Via her frequent Twitter and TikTok posts, she has been outspoken about the stereotypes and double standards forced upon her and the sport.

Reese and LSU’s growth is intertwined

And as Reese grows, so does LSU’s path back to greatness. Mulkey, a Louisiana native and three-time National Champion coach, came back to her home state to coach the Tigers in 2021 and is now one of the highest-paid women’s basketball coaches on public record. Mulkey’s made it clear she’s ready to win games and honor the LSU greats, and it seems building the program back to glory is always on the team’s mind.

“I came here for a lot of reasons, and yes winning basketball games is the main reason, but God puts you in places in your life at the right time,” Mulkey said to media before erecting a statue for WNBA and LSU legend Seimone Augustus. “It just hit me when I got here: ‘What else does [Augustus] need to do to get a statue?’ And I brought it up.”

Seimone Augustus and Coach Kim Mulkey pose in front of newly unveiled statue at Jan. 15, 2022 ceremony. (Photo credit: LSU Athletics)

Along with the statues and winning, the program is rocketing in popularity, setting the all-time PMAC record crowd with 15,721 people on Feb 26. And it appears that growth in Baton Rouge is intertwined: as Reese finds herself as a player, LSU finds its footing back at the top.

“I’ve been able to grow who I am. The SEC gives you a great platform to be who you are.” Reese said. “I feel like I’ve been able to grow and grow my platform just within one year… Just being here at LSU, being able to grow this program has been amazing.”

And although LSU’s program is on the rise, what may cap their ceiling is this year’s schedule. With no ranked opponents until SEC play, LSU was widely criticized for their strength of schedule, clocking in at the 77th most difficult schedule in the nation

And when the Tigers blew a 17-point lead to the Tennessee Vols in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals, it appeared LSU might not have the regular season experience for such high-pressure moments. But the night before the tournament loss, Reese defended the scheduling decisions.

“We did it based on the talent [Mulkey] had. She’s not going to throw our team in a predicament where she doesn’t know what she has. No coach would do that honestly,” Reese said about the strength of schedule. “Next year we already got some games set up and just being able to have those out of conference [games] I think will definitely help us prepare.”

Even with the team’s talent, only time will tell how far that will take them in the NCAA Tournament. With the No. 3 seed in Greenville Region Two, the Tigers matchup against No. 14 Hawaii on Friday at 5:30 p.m. ET on their home turf, broadcasted on ESPN 2. Mulkey says fans should not automatically expect a trip to the Final Four.

And although no one knows the fate of LSU’s remaining season, Reese has made it clear she loves LSU and her future lies in Baton Rouge as the two grow together.

“I’m not going nowhere. I’m graduating from LSU for sure.”

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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