April 1, 2023
LSU takes the program to a ‘crazy’ new place
“It’s crazy ... I keep wanting to call somebody and say ‘Tell me how we did this in two years.' I don’t know."
DALLAS — Don’t pack up the sequins, the ruffles, the tiger stripes or the LSU Tigers just yet.
Seven hundred and five days since Kim Mulkey packed her championship pedigree and her deep Louisiana roots and arrived in Baton Rouge to rebuild an LSU program that had won just nine games the previous season, the Tigers will play for the NCAA Championship.
“It’s crazy,” Mulkey said, after LSU’s 79-72 win over Virginia Tech in the national semifinals at American Airlines Arena on Friday night. “I keep wanting to call somebody and say ‘Tell me how we did this in two years. I don’t know.'”
It’s not a complete mystery when you have a team loaded with athleticism, strength and relentless talents such as Angel Reese and Alexis Morris. Reese and Morris joined forces to take the Tigers to a place that even future Hall of Famers Seimone Augustus and Sylvia Fowles couldn’t go during their LSU careers. LSU was 0-for-5 in semifinal games coming into Friday night. That ended when Reese and Morris combined for 51 points. That included 20 in the final quarter when LSU erased a nine-point deficit to the Hokies.
Reese called it “her-story”. Hard to argue.
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With the spotlight focused largely on the nightcap matchup between Iowa and South Carolina, the Tigers showed they are nobody’s undercard with their fierce fourth quarter, turning defense into offense, scoring in the paint, rebounding and emphatically finishing off a win that looked shaky at best only 10 minutes before. Mulkey said she challenged her team to start the fourth quarter by pretending like it was the last two minutes of the game.
“You got to come out smoking and on fire. You got to play like you’re never going to play again,” Mulkey said. “I didn’t want them to get comfortable thinking they had a lot of time. I wanted them to come out, pick the pace up defensively, fly to the offensive boards as if you have two minutes to play.”
And when it was done, after LSU had outscored Virginia Tech 29-13 and outrebounded them 12-5 and forced six turnovers to nail down the win, Mulkey was hugging the grandkids, Morris was hopping on the scorer’s table looking for her mother, LSU players were dancing in the hallways and Reese was single-handedly trying to re-write WNBA mock drafts across the land to make sure they include Morris.
“I’m just not even believing this right now. Like it’s crazy how much my life has changed in one year, how much I’ve grown on and off the court.” Reese said, finishing with 24 points, 12 rebounds and three steals – her 33rd double-double of the season, tied for the most all-time in a Division I season. “And then to be with this amazing program, LSU, and to be with my amazing teammates and amazing coaches — I just don’t know how to feel right now. Just to be able to believe in each other. All we had was each other. We believed in each other more than anybody else.”
Reese describes a group that started the season putting together the puzzle of nine new players and has closed into a tight – and winning – circle. Reese’s name may be at the top of the marquee, with Morris may have one of the most compelling personal stories of the tournament, but the performances of LaDazhia Williams (16 points, seven rebounds), Kateri Poole (five points, seven rebounds, three assists) and the late heroics of freshman Flau’jae Johnson (five key fourth-quarter points) were all part of the larger narrative.
Morris, out of Beaumont, Texas, is a walking Cinderella story. A player who Mulkey let go at Baylor, who looked for a basketball home at Rutgers and Texas A&M. A player who ultimately came back to Mulkey at LSU and asked her old coach for a second chance.
It’s a comeback story, Morris says, one that might someday turn into a book or a documentary. But the ending isn’t written yet.
“It’s bittersweet that I have to leave, but it’s like I’d rather leave on top than anything, compared to anything. So I’m just super excited,” Morris said. “If you know me, I’m never satisfied. I’m super excited that we won, but I’m hungry, like I’m greedy. I want to win it all so I can complete the story and complete the comeback. I’ve been through so much, so much that you all don’t even know.”
Mulkey said she found herself looking up at the LSU fans as the game ended. The ones who have never experienced this kind of success, who filled the Pete Maravich Assembly Center with noise all season, who have embraced her bold fashion choices and sparkled with their own “party” clothes, as Mulkey has described it. She saw former Louisiana Tech players, former Baylor players, players who were on her LSU roster last year. Here to support this rocket ship of a program.
“I came home for lots of reasons. One, to someday hang a championship banner in the PMAC. Never, ever do you think you’re going to do something like this in two years,” Mulkey said. “Also keep it in perspective. No team — you think about all the great men’s players that have played at LSU. You think about all the great women’s players that have played. When they told me none have ever played for a National Championship, I was kind of surprised. So that’s an accomplishment. That’s a step in the right direction.”
Mulkey, who is 3-0 in NCAA title games, is under-selling it. In the age of the transfer portal, it’s seismic.
This team that started the season looking at a group of strangers in the huddle and doubts about whether their non-conference schedule made them tough enough to compete first in the SEC and then in this tournament, has erased any doubt that they are capable of winning it all.
“It’s just another game,” Morris said. “I shifted my focus to Sunday, and that’s where my focus is now. Nothing to discredit the performance tonight. I think my team, we did a great job tonight. I’m just locked in on the prize.”
Written by Michelle Smith
Michelle Smith has covered women's basketball nationally for nearly three decades. Smith has worked for ESPN.com, The Athletic, the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as Pac-12.com and WNBA.com. She was named to the Alameda County Women's Hall of Fame in 2015, is the 2017 recipient of the Jake Wade Media Award from the Collegiate Sports Information Directors Association (CoSIDA) and was named the Mel Greenberg Media Award winner by the WBCA in 2019.