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LSU in uphill battle to retain their crown

LSU Angel Reese Angel Reese - The Canadian Press

It’s certainly not impossible, but Kim Mulkey’s LSU Tigers have a mountain to climb if they want to become the first repeat national championship winner since 2016.

A No. 3 seed, the Tigers find themselves in the brutal Regional 2 in Albany that also features Caitlin Clark and Iowa, UCLA, Kansas State and Louisville.

The last time we saw the Tigers in action was in the SEC Championship against archrivals South Carolina. The matchup devolved into a brawl when tensions – present all game long in what was a physical affair – boiled over late in the fourth quarter.

The Gamecocks’ MiLaysia Fulwiley stole the ball from Flau’jae Johnson, who in turn grabbed the freshman guard’s arm to stop a fast break. This brought over Ashlyn Watkins, who expressed her displeasure with Johnson and a scuffle ensued that saw South Carolina centre Kamilla Cardoso shove Johnson to the ground. Johnson’s brother then jumped onto the court from the stands to intervene. When the dust settled after a 20-minute delay, six players were ejected and Johnson’s brother, Trayvon Milton, was arrested. The Gamecocks ended up winning the game 79-72 for their second win over the Tigers this season.

From a practical perspective for LSU, the loss condemned them to a No. 3 seed and a tough bottom half of the Albany regional. What was also disappointing about the way the game ended is that the Tigers had entered it on an eight-game winning streak and truly believed they were capable of handing the Gamecocks their first loss of the season.

The Tigers will open up their defence against the No. 14 Rice Owls, a team that can shoot and set up in the post. By no means will this be a walkover, and should they advance, it could set up a very intriguing game against No. 6 Louisville (who must defeat No. 11 Middle Tennessee in their opener).

After three seasons with the Cardinals, guard Hailey Van Lith transferred to Baton Rouge for her senior year. A two-time All-ACC first-teamer, Van Lith’s transition to the Tigers has not been seamless, but that was to be expected. Not only has Van Lith gone from a No. 1 scoring option to a tertiary one with Angel Reese and Aneesah Morrow shouldering the offensive load, but she’s moved from shooting guard to point guard.

“Hailey’s taken a lot of criticism, and it needs to stop,” Mulkey said this week. “It needs to stop. She’s learned a new position. She’s on the top team in the country, the defending national champion. She’s having to play the point guard.”

This tournament could be the collegiate swan song for both Van Lith and Reese, one of college basketball’s most recognizable stars. According to a consensus of mock WNBA Drafts, Reese is widely expected to be a top-10 pick next month, but the “Bayou Barbie” has at least flirted with the idea of returning for her final season of eligibility. The Baltimore-area native spent her first two seasons at Maryland before transferring to the Tigers ahead of last season. After being honoured at Senior Day late last month, Reese wrote, “Should I stay, or should I go? I don’t know” on social media.

For her part, Mulkey says she doesn’t intend to sway the decisions of either woman.

"Angel said when she came here she'd stay two years and Hailey said she'd stay one," Mulkey said in February. "I'm just not the kind of coach to sit people down and influence them on what agents to pick or talk to them about what they want to do. They surely know they have the COVID year to come back. And they would be more than welcome, but I just try to stay away from having any kind of influential conversations, particularly with Angel and Hailey because they made it perfectly clear to me when they came what they wanted to do."

While Reese already has a championship, a Tournament Most Outstanding Player Award, SEC Player of the Year Award and a unanimous First-Team All-American selection to her name, another title would be the cherry on top of a sensational collegiate career. But whether or not the Tigers have what it takes to send Reese out on top remains to be seen.