Louisiana State wasn’t supposed to win the NCAA women’s tournament. When everyone began filling their brackets out a few weeks ago, many fans Sharpied South Carolina into one half of the national championship, and anyone from UConn to Virginia Tech into the other half.
But those overlooking LSU weren’t giving much thought to the way controversial head coach Kim Mulkey had quickly transformed the LSU program and turned the Tigers into a legitimate title contender, thanks to a slew of transfers—from star Angel Reese to bench player Jasmine Carson, a graduate transfer who spent two seasons apiece at Georgia Tech and West Virginia before finding her way to Baton Rouge. Both players were critical to LSU’s 102-85 win over Iowa on Sunday. Carson’s season high before Sunday came with a 25-point outburst against Florida early in the season. On Sunday, she had 21 in the first half, and kept the Tigers rolling when Reese was on the bench with foul trouble.
LSU proved the best way to shut down Caitlin Clark and Iowa’s potent offense was to simply shoot better. The Tigers shot 54.3 percent from the floor, including 11-of-17 from deep—LSU averaged around five made 3s per game heading into the title game—and LSU, Carson in particular, likely benefited from the referees’ soft whistle in the title game.
Referees called 37 fouls, and LSU’s Reese and Alexis Morris, in addition to Iowa’s Caitlin Clark, Monika Czinano, and McKenna Warnock, were all forced to the bench early because of foul trouble. Some of those calls were … let’s say dubious. Czinano and Warnock were the only ones who ended up fouling out, but the constant whistles clearly affected the game, with many players (including Clark) playing hesitantly for much of the second half. Clark, who picked up her fourth foul—a questionable technical after she flipped the ball behind her and out of bounds—scored 30 points and recorded eight assists, but that wasn’t enough. Not on a day when LSU simply couldn’t miss. Carson was a perfect 7-for-7 from the field in the first half, with five 3s, including one she banked in from deep at the halftime buzzer.
“It’s no one-man show around here,” Reese said during her postgame, on-court interview. “When I go down, the next man is up. Every single time I go out, or Alexis goes out, everybody always comes to step up. … Jasmine Carson! Are you telling me 21 points in the first half? That’s what we needed from her. And I’m super excited and happy for this team.”
You can certainly read the subtext in Reese’s comments. This game will be remembered for the officiating, sure, but also for the story line of Reese, the Tigers’ on-court and emotional leader, vs. Clark, the AP National Player of the Year who had back-to-back 40-point games in the Hawkeyes’ Elite Eight and Final Four wins. As LSU pulled away in the fourth quarter, Reese appeared to taunt Clark by doing John Cena’s “You Can’t See Me” gesture—the same one Clark did last week during Iowa’s win over Louisville.
“All year, I was critiqued about who I was,” Reese said after the game. “I don’t fit the narrative. I don’t fit in the box that y’all want me to be in. I’m too hood, I’m too ghetto, y’all told me that all year. But when other people do it, y’all don’t say nothing. So this was for the girls that look like me, that’s going to speak up on what you believe in, that’s unapologetically you.”
Angel Reese postgame presser: pic.twitter.com/RgCYbIibfa— Nicole Auerbach (@NicoleAuerbach) April 3, 2023
Reese also flashed her ring finger at Clark—a nod to the first women’s basketball title in LSU history, an accomplishment that would have been unthinkable a short time ago. LSU lost in the second round of last year’s NCAA tournament during Mulkey’s first season, and was picked to finish third in the SEC this season.
Of course, Mulkey has never been concerned about what outsiders think about her or her team. This often works to her benefit, like moving from the Baylor program she’d built into a powerhouse to an LSU program that hadn’t been to the Final Four since Sylvia Fowles was on the team. Yet for all of her teams’ on-court successes, she’s been a polarizing figure—with her outfits and comments overshadowing her team’s play. For months, she refused to comment on her former player Brittney Griner’s detainment in Russia and also appeared to not take the pandemic seriously; but those are just some of her problematic and controversial takes.
But Mulkey’s impact on the court is undeniable. She is now a four-time champion as a coach, which puts her at third overall—behind only Geno Auriemma with 11, and Pat Summitt with eight. She joins Rick Pitino (if you count his vacated title at Louisville) as the only Division I coaches to win the NCAA tournament at two schools.
“This is the fourth time I’ve been blessed,” Mulkey said in her postgame, on-court interview. “I think my tears are tears of joy. I’m so happy for everyone back home in Louisiana.”
Two years ago, Mulkey took over a struggling LSU program that hadn’t made an NCAA tournament appearance since 2018. She immediately began improving the roster by using the transfer portal, adding guard Alexis Morris before last season, and forward Angel Reese this season.
The player nicknamed “Bayou Barbie” was exactly what LSU needed—a dominant post player who brings length, energy, and a perfect amount of shit-talking to the court. Reese didn’t have her best game Sunday, but just looking at the box score wouldn’t do her justice. Every time the Tigers needed a big rebound, she snared it in. And the few moments when the Tigers badly needed a bucket, she made her way into the post and gave them one.
And as much as this game was a battle between Clark and Reese, it was always bigger than those two stars. And when it came down to it, Reese just had more support than Clark.
First-half hero Carson only took one more shot in the second half, but it didn’t matter; she’d already played her role. Morris came up with play after play down the stretch to keep Iowa at arm’s length, even after the Hawkeyes went on a 15-2 run in the third quarter to cut into LSU’s lead. And LaDazhia Williams had possibly the quietest 20 points in a title game. And at the end of the game, all of those contributions proved vital for LSU. The Tigers wouldn’t have won with Reese alone.
“Breathe and believe. That’s all we did all year,” Reese said in her postgame, on-court interview. “Just take a deep breath and believe in each other. Nobody thought we were gonna be here. As long as we believe in each other, I don’t even know what to say right now, I’m just so happy.”
Reese will be back next season, and LSU will have to deal with the pressure of being national champions in a conference where Dawn Staley and the Gamecocks are hungry to avenge their Final Four loss to Iowa, and Tennessee is looking to reclaim some of its old glory. And there’ll be other challenges as well, some of which won’t present themselves until all the players step onto the court.
But for now, Mulkey and Bayou Barbie and their squad reign supreme. And while few people predicted it would happen, in shutting down Clark and dominating the title game there should be no question they earned it.