How LSU's fate changed from uncertainty to a spot in the Final Four

AP Photo/Mic Smith

GREENVILLE, S.C. -- Angel Reese sunk into her chair in the LSU locker room, a piece of net tucked firmly in her championship cap. She picked up her phone to scroll through social media, following an exhilarating -- and improbable -- trip to the women's Final Four.

Perhaps no one on the Tigers' roster represents making the improbable happen more than Reese, who watched the Final Four from home this time last year after her team, Maryland, was eliminated. A week later, she entered the transfer portal with her sights set on South Carolina or Tennessee.

Then she got a chance phone call from Kateri Poole, the former Ohio State guard who was also in the transfer portal. Poole was determined to play for Kim Mulkey at LSU.

Reese? Not so much.

"Kateri called me and was like, 'Take a visit to LSU," Reese said. "I was like, 'I guess?' Then I took a visit, and every other visit got canceled. I don't think I'd be able to do this anywhere else. Best decision I ever made in my entire life."

At this point, Reese turned to Poole, sitting next to her in the locker room and asked, "What did you say to get me here?"

"I said 'Let's go, let's do this,'" Poole said. "She was like, 'I don't know.' I'm like, 'Angel, just take a visit.'"

"I was scared to get coached by Coach Mulkey," Reese said.

"She heard Coach Mulkey was crazy," Poole said. "I'm like, 'We need crazy. We need that. We came and took a visit. That day, we both texted each other: This is home."

They had both made their choice.

"I came up to Angel after the game and I said, 'This is what we came here for.' Now we're going to Dallas, baby. That one decision."

"It changed my life," Reese said. "It hasn't even been a year yet."

"You can't put it into words," Poole said. "They counted us out all year, it was excuses after excuses, it's the world against LSU and we're still not done. Meet us in Dallas."

There were many reasons people counted out LSU -- the Tigers had a young roster, they played in a league dominated by defending national champion South Carolina, they had a weak nonconference schedule. Mulkey, in her second year in Baton Rouge after a 21-year, championship-filled career at Baylor, also went out of her way to tell people not to get their hopes up, that it takes time to build championship teams.

She said the same thing to her coaching staff, understanding the hard work ahead in 2023. Mulkey had turned over the entire roster, bringing more than Reese and Poole. LSU had nine new players when fall practice began, including elite freshmen Flau'jae Johnson and Sa'Myah Smith.

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Indeed, the theme for the season was "Piece it together." From the very earliest meetings among the coaching staff, Mulkey had a clear, concise directive about what she needed out of each coach and each player.

"We knew we had some youth. We had some experience, but no one besides Coach Mulkey and a few members on the staff have been to a Final Four and actually won a national championship," said assistant coach Daphne Mitchell, who worked with Mulkey at Baylor for six years and is one of the few who know that feeling. "She just has a way of getting everyone to really pull their own weight and just buy in. She's just a natural-born leader, and she's able to instill confidence into her players."

None of what LSU did was easy this season, even though Mulkey made it look that way. Though she tried to temper expectations, warning before the Sweet 16 started that their quick rise "might be feeding that monster too quickly," she also can't help herself.

"I want things quick," she said.

Now she has them, behind a group of players who have found a way to be a team. Reese has lived up to her vast potential, averaging a double-double (23.2 points, 15.7 rebounds) as one of the best players in the country. Johnson has started every game as a true freshman, averaging 11.1 points and 5.9 rebounds.

Alexis Morris, on her fourth collegiate team after beginning her career with Mulkey at Baylor in 2017, has provided a veteran presence but also a grit and determination that has come to define this team. At one point in her career, she thought about quitting basketball. Now here she is. "I'm the comeback kid," she said. "I beat the odds."

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"What I love about coaching is I want that kid to think she can't go any further, but man, when she does, she looks at me and goes, 'My God, thank you for pushing me,'" Mulkey said. "I want to look at that kid that everybody says will be an academic casualty or somebody that's really going to struggle academically, and I can watch that kid get a degree and a diploma. That's what I will remember when I sit in the rocking chair someday, is that I took players that maybe others didn't want to coach, couldn't coach, and we competed, and we won.

"But they have to buy in. They have to say, I love this woman's personality, man. She laughs with us, she cries with us, but she's tough as nails and doesn't ask us to do anything that she wouldn't do for us."

Now LSU is headed back to the Final Four for the first time since 2008 with a team Mulkey has gotten the most out of, from the beginning of the season until now.

"I remember when I took those transfers, a lot of my coaching friends said, 'You got a locker room full of personalities,'" Mulkey said. "How are you going to handle that?' I said, 'Do you know me very well? Bring them on.' What they need is tough love. What they need is to be held accountable. Boy, have they had a remarkable year."

Reese, for one, said she could not have imagined doing this so far from home. But she did have a big piece of it with her for both games in Greenville. For the first time all season, her grandmother got to watch her play in person.

Her aunt drove them nearly nine hours from their home in Baltimore because her grandma does not like to fly. They sat in the upper deck to watch the improbable dream become a reality on Sunday night. Reese says she now has to find a way to get her grandmother on an airplane to come to Dallas, to watch their Final Four game on Friday (7 p.m. ET, ESPN) against No. 1 seed Virginia Tech. If her determination this season is any indication, she will make it happen.

"To be in this moment now? I'm just so happy," Reese said. "I didn't have any expectations to win a Final Four or go to the Final Four. I just wanted to have fun and be happy again and be confident, have a coach that's super confident in me. That's all I wanted. Now everything came together."

For Reese, for her teammates, for Mulkey.

For everyone at LSU.