'It's crazy': LSU to title game in Mulkey's 2nd year


'It's crazy': LSU to title game in Mulkey's 2nd year

DALLAS -- LSU women's basketball coach Kim Mulkey insists she didn't have a timeline for when she could get the program back in the hunt as a national title contender. And if she could have envisioned one, it certainly wouldn't have been this quickly.

But here Mulkey was -- in her second season in Baton Rouge after her storied career at Baylor, where she won three national titles -- bringing the Tigers somewhere they'd never been before: the national championship game.

The third-seeded Tigers snapped their winless streak in Final Four games (0-5 entering Friday) with a 79-72 victory over No. 1 seed Virginia Tech in the first national semifinal game at the American Airlines Center on Friday night.

They will play No. 2 seed Iowa Hawkeyes for the championship on Sunday.

"It's crazy I'm sitting up here," Mulkey said. "It's crazy we're getting ready to play for a national championship. I keep wanting to call somebody and go tell me how we did this in two years. I don't know."

Mulkey had done something similar before, guiding the Bears to a national championship in her fifth season in Waco. Independent of the outcome, though, her 2022-23 run may still top that. The Tigers -- who last season were upset in the second round -- brought in nine newcomers, a group headlined by and typically reliant upon former Maryland star Angel Reese.

"It's like a dream. It still hasn't hit me that I'm at the Final Four," Reese said. "I'm just not even believing this right now."

Mulkey is just the fourth head coach to take a team to the national championship game within their first two seasons.

"Never, ever do you think you're going to do something like this in two years," Mulkey said. "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."

Kim Mulkey is just the fourth head coach to take a team to the national championship game within their first two seasons.

Mulkey may have been here before, but her players have not. After the buzzer sounded, fifth-year senior Alexis Morris jumped up on the sideline table to hype up the LSU crowd, adorned in animal print and sequins, while Reese and freshman Flau'jae Johnson jumped into the stands to join the celebration.

"I'm never satisfied. I'm super-excited that we won, but I'm hungry," said Morris. "Like, I'm greedy. I want to win it all so I can complete the story."

After leading by as many as 12, Virginia Tech looked in control entering the fourth quarter, holding a 59-50 lead that put the Hokies at an 89.7% win probability, per ESPN Analytics. Entering Friday, teams in this tournament were 43-0 when leading by nine or more points after three quarters.

Mulkey said she challenged her team to have a sense of urgency down the stretch.

"The way I approached that was, 'You got two minutes left in the game. You're down (nine). You've got to come out smoking and on fire. You got to play like you're never going to play again. Not ten minutes,'" 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."

LSU did just that, picking up its intensity on the defensive end and on the glass. The ultimate result? A 22-3 run, and 29-13 fourth-quarter overall, that reclaimed the lead for good for the Tigers.

The effort marked the second-largest comeback win in the Final Four over the past decade, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.

Morris, whose 27 points were the most she has ever scored in an NCAA tournament game, came through with big shot after big shot, while Reese finished with her 33rd double-double of the season, tied for the most of any player in Division I history.

Reese's emergence was a huge part of LSU's ability to take control of the game: She had 10 points and two boards in the first half, and 14 and 10 in the second.

"I remember they came in at halftime and said ... (Virginia Tech) had 11 more rebounds than us," Reese said. "I took that personal because I'm supposed to be the one that gets the rebounds. So I didn't want to let my team down and just trying to do whatever it takes to win."

Reese became the first player to have 100 points, 70 rebounds, 10 blocks and 10 steals in a single NCAA tournament, according to ESPN Stats & Information; through Friday, she has totaled 113 points, 81 rebounds, 14 blocks and 13 steals.

"Took her out a couple times because I didn't think she was getting up and down the floor. She acted winded," Mulkey added. "Yeah, she should take it to heart. That's what she does. I can't tell you they were blocking her out all that good. I think she just was letting the game come to her and not being aggressive enough, and she wasn't in foul trouble."

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6 of June 2023