DALLAS — LSU’s berth in the national championship game can be traced back to its two-point loss to Tennessee in the SEC tournament. The Tigers played a nonconference schedule void of any competition even close to their level and had played only a few close contests, all within the final weeks of the regular season. Then they let go of a 17-point lead against Tennessee, an experienced squad desperate for a signature win, and it seemed fitting.
A largely untested team was seeing what it was like to be battle-tested too late to make a serious run to a national championship. A No. 3 seed seemed more than fair given their resume and that of other programs who did face stronger teams, no matter why the schedules looked the way they did.
That flipped quickly. The beauty of March Madness is the chaos and to question the polls, rankings or seedings is fairly useless. The best team doesn’t always win the championship. Brackets matter, matchups matter. And a game like Tennessee to right the championship dreams matters.
“I think that’s just something we honestly needed,” LSU star Angel Reese said on the eve of her and the program’s first national championship game (vs. Iowa, 3:30 p.m. ET Sunday on ABC). “It sucks to lose for sure, but I think, if you don’t take lessons, and if you don’t learn from losses, I think that’s just — it’s not good for you.”
LSU was outrebounded by two that game and Reese reeled in 11, one of the worst performances of her National Player of the Year-contending season. Tennessee’s duo of Jordan Horston and Rickea Jackson had 10 each. Reese said she felt as if she let her team down, so immediately afterward she got into the gym to build strength and get into better shape.
“I feel like I needed to develop a little bit more and be able to play in those situations when it does come down to it,” Reese said.
She told Yahoo Sports ahead of the Elite Eight that she didn’t have the proper conditioning and was dealing with cramps in bigger games. Those two aspects have been her biggest focus at LSU, and a renewed one late in the season as competition heightened.
The Tigers’ only loss of the regular season was to South Carolina, an expected outcome given head coach Kim Mulkey described the season as “South Carolina and everybody else.” A loss to the undefeated reigning champions isn’t a scratch on anyone’s ledger.
A loss to Tennessee, a program that faced the best in the nation, but couldn’t collect a signature win from it, is a red mark.
“Coming back to practice that week, things have picked up a lot,” Reese said. “Just seeing how much the team responded to that loss and being able to know the things we need to get better at, I think that’s something that’s sparked for us.”
LSU handled Hawai’i in the first round with 34 points and 15 rebounds from Reese. Against Michigan, Reese scored 25 with 24 rebounds. Utah, the No. 2 seed in their regional, provided the most dangerous test and nearly knocked out the Tigers. Any team in any sport reaching any championship tilt needs at least a little luck in things going its way.
The Utes had a chance to hit two free throws in the final seconds to win, or at least force overtime. Reese committed the foul, exactly as she had in what became their last SEC tournament game.
“It gave me deja vu from that game because I remember getting that last offensive foul call in that Tennessee game,” Reese said. “Then when I got the foul and fouled out for that game. Just being in those moments has just built us for this season, and I’m just happy to be here right now.”
The transfer portal has changed many teams’ trajectories upward, but none more so than LSU in Mulkey’s second season at the helm. Reese chose Mulkey and LSU over Tennessee and South Carolina, she said. Kateri Poole and LaDazhia Williams also transferred in, joining Alexis Morris from the season prior.
“Obviously, the transfer portal was good to us at LSU, but you know what, in another week kids can depart, kids that you wouldn’t expect would depart. You’re seeing it every day,” Mulkey said.
Reese talked about having a chip on their shoulders, and the entire team certainly has one. The program put up billboards and tweets with “Yeah, that LSU,” clapping back at a reporter questioning their Associated Press ranking. There are LSU billboards with Mulkey on them around Dallas and in Waco, home to her three championships with Baylor. They’ve mentioned the underdog mentality throughout their week in Texas.
Mulkey said they celebrated every milestone last year, and this year too. She’s harped that this team’s run is remarkable. To do it in year two is unheard of, but to do it with nine completely new pieces is even more unfathomable.
“We’re not supposed to be here,” Reese said. “We’re not supposed to be here, and I don’t care what anybody says, we’re not.”