April 2, 2023 

LSU stuns, builds legacy in program’s first championship

A game for the ages as Tigers break through

Not many people thought LSU would be the 2022-23 national champions, including some of their own team.

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“Stop lying to me,” is what Kateri Poole said she would tell someone preseason who tell her LSU’s fate. And after the win, Head Coach Kim Mulkey said on the broadcast, “I’m stunned.”

When LSU entered the season, they weren’t even ranked the second-best team in the SEC, much less nationally, where they were ranked 16.

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With Mulkey’s second year at the helm, nine new pieces, and an extremely weak conference schedule, it was likely the Tigers’ would get wins, but nothing serious. And even as they began winning, most chalked it up to the strength of schedule.

And Mulkey felt similarly, hoping to temper expectations. She consistently tried to tame chatter in Baton Rouge and across the country, hoping for an improvement from last year: a trip to the Sweet 16.

But on Sunday night, in Dallas, Texas, just less than two hours where she coached for 21 years, her team beat all the expectations with a stunning 102-85 victory over Iowa.

The Tigers controlled the court for the majority of the game, but in the second quarter is when Mulkey knew the game was won.

“The game was won, in my opinion, in the second quarter when those three young ladies — Sa’Myah Smith, a freshman, Last-Tear Poa, a first-time transfer from junior college, and Jasmine Carson, her last and only year playing for me,” Mulkey said at the postgame press conference. “When those guys got in there and they extended the lead and scored with Iowa, I thought this is going to be a fun night.”

Carson was particularly the star of the night, with 22 points on five of six three-point shooting, overachieving her 8.4 ppg average before the first quarter even ended. And in the final quarter, as Iowa made a push, cutting LSU’s deficit to just seven, senior and Texas native Alexis Morris took over.

Morris had 15 of her 21 points in the fourth, where she kicked her game into a new gear, while providing veteran perspective. She told her team not to shoot threes and stick with their mid-range game. Morris, the fifth year senior has been a vital part of the locker room all season.

“I’ll be honest, when my mid-ranges start falling, I was like ‘oh, yeah,’” Morris answered about when she knew they had won. “I’m not going to let it slip out of my hands. We’re too close. I just smelled [it], I just tasted it at the time. Even when we were down by seven, I was like it’s not happening.”

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LSU’s showing was historic for many reasons. First, LSU set the championship single-quarter scoring record (32 points in the second), the half scoring record (59 points in the first), and the single-game scoring record (102 points).

But more than just some scoring titles, LSU’s win marks the Tigers’ first national championship, despite their history of greatness.

“I think back to my press conference when Scott Woodward introduced me as LSU’s coach… I made a statement and asked everybody to turn around and look at those Final Four banners. Nowhere on there did it say ‘national champions,’ and that’s what I came home to do,” Mulkey told reporters. “So I’m relieved because I don’t have to think about that anymore. To see after the ballgame, the former LSU players, Seimone Augustus crying, and seeing all those people that really were a part of those Final Fours but just couldn’t get over the hump.”

LSU made it to five consecutive Final Fours during Seimone Augustus and Sylvia Fowles’ tenure, with assistant head coach Bob Starkey, who Mulkey brought back this year, and is the only member of all six Final Four teams. And all season, honoring that legacy and driving it forward has been top of mind.

“I think [a championship] would just be great. I think it was great for our community. I think it would be great for our state. We are the flagship state of Louisiana,” Mulkey said in October at SEC Media Day. “I just know work. We’re doing the same things at LSU that I did at Baylor.”

In January, Seimone Augustus was honored with a statue in front of the school’s auditorium, something that Mulkey spearheaded. She is the first woman athlete ever to have a statue at LSU. Augustus was at both games in Dallas celebrating with the team.

“Having [Augustus] here winning the natty, what more can you ask for?” Smith told The Next postgame.

That legacy, for Augustus and for the city of Baton Rouge, was on the player’s mind from top to bottom.

“We did it for her,” Poole said. “We did it for those before her for those after her. LSU has a lot of history and we just wanted to keep that going and finally break some records.”

And as LSU achieves the unthinkable, there is plenty of emotion: for Mulkey’s legacy, for the school, for Morris’ and seniors’ final game, and for the adoring fans waiting back in Baton Rouge.

“With about 1:30 to go, I couldn’t hold it. I got very emotional. That’s really not like me until the buzzer goes off, but I knew we were going to hold on and win this game,” Mulkey said. “I don’t know if it was the fact that I am home. I don’t know if it was looking across there at my daughter and my grandchildren. I don’t know if it was looking across at LSU. I don’t know what it was, but I lost it.”

Jenn Hatfield contributed reporting to this story.

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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