Why LSU is an unlikely but fitting champion

DALLAS — In the national championship game between Iowa and LSU, featuring standouts Caitlin Clark and Angel Reese, it was a reserve without a single point in the past three games who stole the show.

That’s just the way March Madness, this LSU team and even this entire college basketball season have gone. The commonality tying it all together is that graduate guard Jasmine Carson, who led LSU with a clutch 22 of the team’s championship game record 102 points, is a transfer who wasn’t even on the Tigers squad this time last year. Barely any player on this title team was on the roster a year ago.

Nine new pieces came into summer workouts, already a question mark for success, and LSU played one of the easiest non-conference schedules in the country, perking more questions. The SEC was critiqued in the regular season for having a down year, so the Tigers’ undefeated run up until the loss to 2022 champion South Carolina was dismissed as unimpressive. A late-game misstep against Tennessee signaled what many believed: the Tigers weren’t battle-tested.

That single test appeared to be all they needed.

“Take advantage of the opportunity. That’s what we did,” Kateri Poole said on the court after cutting her first national championship nets, a 102-85 win in hand over the nation’s best offense and National Player of the Year. “We didn’t let up.”

They’re undoubtedly unlikely champions. Reese herself said, “We’re not supposed to be here, and I don’t care what anybody says, we’re not,” the morning before the final. LSU coach Kim Mulkey opened the week by wondering if they were “feeding the monster” too early by reaching the Final Four in her second season as head coach.

With a championship hat on her head, she still wasn’t quite sure how it happened.

“I don’t know how we did it,” Mulkey told reporters after the celebrations. “Defense and rebounding carried us a lot this year. I can’t tell you defense carried us today, but you’re playing against a generational talent in Clark. So you knew you’d better score the ball with them, and we scored the ball from all positions today.”

Carson was on fire in the first half, going 4 of 4 from 3-point range to build the 59-42 halftime lead. It was a record for points in a half in a title game. And an unlikely source after she scored 11 points and had 4 rebounds the entire tournament run.

LSU's Jasmine Carson and Angel Reese celebrate during the NCAA women's tournament national championship game at American Airlines Center in Dallas on April 2, 2023. (C. Morgan Engel/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

LSU’s Jasmine Carson and Angel Reese celebrate during the NCAA women’s tournament national championship game at American Airlines Center in Dallas on April 2, 2023. (C. Morgan Engel/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

“I didn’t have nothing to lose,” said Carson, who played four years at West Virginia. “This was my last game of my college career, and I ended it. I ended it the right way.”

Alexis Morris, on her third team after starting her collegiate career with Mulkey at Baylor, scored 21 and added 9 assists. She likes to “temperature check” teammates and asked Carson in practice if she wanted to get up extra shots. Carson declined.

“I said, ‘You ready for tonight?’ ” Morris said. “She hit her first few shots, and Iowa called a timeout. I said, ‘Stay right there. Stay locked in. Whatever headspace you’re in, do not check out. Just stay ready.’ ”

Reese, the heralded transfer from Maryland, scored 15 with 10 rebounds and 3 steals, setting a record for double-doubles in an NCAA single season with 34.

“We’ve been through a lot of things this year,” Reese said. “All season, we’ve been trying to figure out how we were going to piece it together. No matter what, the biggest goal was to get a national championship. So we put everything else to the side and came together as a team and got to that goal.”

LaDazhia Williams, a graduate transfer from Missouri who played her freshman season at South Carolina, scored 20 with 5 rebounds and 3 steals. Flau’jae Johnson scored 10 with 7 rebounds and 1 steal.

“They made some tough 3s, some tough jumpers off of ball screens, and sometimes you have to live with some of that,” said Clark, who scored 30 points with 8 assists and 2 rebounds.

Clark, who swept Player of the Year awards last week, also had four fouls, close to joining seniors McKenna Warnock and Monika Czinano at five in what was a messy, controversial game for the referees. Their losses ended a stretch of 90-plus games by the same starting five, an aspect of the game beginning to fade away.

The transfer portal has changed the way teams can reload and build immediate winners, much like free agency in professional leagues. LSU is the first example of that shift, taking the season’s powers by trash-talking, confident storm to win the program’s first title, shocking most consistent regular-season viewers. It’s also the first basketball title at LSU, a historic program with decorated professionals like Sylvia Fowles, Seimone Augustus, Pete Maravich and Shaquille O’Neal.

“We knew the history that the school had and we wanted to keep the legacy going,” Poole said.

None of those legends posed with an NCAA national championship trophy with friends throwing confetti into the frame. None walked into the postgame news conference able to say, “the champs are in the house,” and carry the trophy back out “like grabbing a rebound,” in Mulkey’s description. None even played in a title game.

LSU's Angel Reese celebrates with teammates after winning the NCAA women's tournament national championship game at American Airlines Center in Dallas on April 2, 2023. (Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

LSU’s Angel Reese celebrates with teammates after winning the NCAA women’s tournament national championship game at American Airlines Center in Dallas on April 2, 2023. (Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

When Mulkey was introduced as LSU’s new head coach just about two years ago, suddenly and somewhat surprisingly leaving a 21-year and three-championship tenure at Baylor, she told those in attendance to look up at the five Final Four banners at the school’s Pete Maravich Assembly Center.

“Nowhere on there did it say ‘national champions,’ and that’s what I came home to do,” Mulkey said on Sunday. “So I’m relieved because I don’t have to think about that anymore.”

Poole, a transfer from Ohio State, told Yahoo Sports during the Greenville regional that when she decided to come to LSU, and then recruit Reese there, she thought there was a chance the team could make the Elite Eight. But it wasn’t until the adversity, namely that loss to Tennessee, that the team realized it was only themselves who could beat them. She said everyone blamed themselves for that SEC tournament loss, but they came together and held each accountable while having each other’s backs.

It was love that she said led them to a title, though she couldn’t pinpoint how or why that came to fruition like it did.

“Whew, it took a long time to get there,” Poole said. “It was just doing it for our seniors. They’re never going to be able to have this opportunity again.”

Mulkey also didn’t identify how that love flourished, instead shifting to explain how a descriptive type of love brought this group to the pinnacle of college basketball’s 2022-23 season.

“I think we’ve got a locker room full of kids who like tough love,” Mulkey said. “I don’t have a locker room of a bunch of passive ones, as you know. They will tell you how they feel. They’ll talk trash on the floor. You have to be a very strong coach to coach this many personalities. And I say that, not to pat myself on the back, but I don’t have a problem getting in their face.”

Mulkey called a timeout 90 seconds into the game after a turnover by Poole followed “numerous” ones by freshman guard Johnson, the only starter who wasn’t a transfer. Iowa led 7-3 from a Clark 3-pointer off Poole’s turnover that brought the Hawkeye-heavy arena to a roar. Mulkey got in their face.

“We didn’t come over there singing Kumbaya,” Mulkey said. “They came over there and challenged them.”

They accepted it, from opting to play for Mulkey last spring to the hardest minutes of their season on Sunday. They’ll leave Dallas singing — or more likely rapping — about how they’re the champions.

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