‘They won the game for us’: LSU reserves propel Tigers to NCAA championship
10: 43 PM ET
- Covers women’s college basketball and the WNBA
- Previously covered UConn and the WNBA Connecticut Sun for the Hartford Courant
- Stanford graduate and Baltimore native with further experience at the Dallas Morning News, Seattle Times and Cincinnati Enquirer
DALLAS — LSU Tigers coach Kim Mulkey criticized her bench after an ineffective first half against the Virginia Tech Hokies during Friday’s national semifinals. Graduate student Jasmine Carson, freshman Sa’Myah Smith and sophomore Last-Tear Poa came away with a collective minus-14 in a combined 17 minutes before finishing with zero points by game’s end.
“They didn’t take that lightly,” Tigers star sophomore forward Angel Reese said of Mulkey’s challenge. “Coach gets on everybody, and I think they took that personal.”
Amid early foul trouble to their starters on Sunday, LSU’s “role players” stepped up massively on the biggest of stages, helping the Tigers score an NCAA title game record of 102 points versus the Iowa Hawkeyes on their way to winning the school’s first basketball national championship. Carson contributed 22, three points shy of her season high and four off her career high. It was the Tigers’ sixth 100-point game of the season but the first since nonconference play in November.
“I already knew [Iowa guard Caitlin Clark] could score 50; you still ain’t gonna beat us as a team,” LSU freshman Flau’jae Johnson said. “We just put 100 on the board. You’ve got to look at the stat sheet.”
LSU beat Iowa 102-85.
After Iowa coach Lisa Bluder warned that LSU was similar to South Carolina but “almost with a little bit better shooters,” Mulkey’s squad lived up to the billing by hitting 11 3-pointers (five from Carson), tied for their most in a game this season. The Tigers had made just seven 3s across their previous three NCAA tournament contests but took notice of how the Hawkeyes were massively sagging off South Carolina’s perimeter players in the semifinals.
“As a shooter, when somebody sags off you, that’s the green light,” Carson said. “That’s what we capitalized off tonight.”
The bench was a big part of that. Reese (15 points) and Alexis Morris (21) are accustomed to putting up big numbers, but on Sunday, the Tigers’ bench shined, outscoring Iowa’s reserve unit 30-8. It was the seventh time this season, and first since Nov. 26, that LSU had five players score in double figures.
“When you play as a team, everybody clicking on all cylinders, one person is not going to beat us,” Johnson said.
As LSU players picked up fouls as the first half went on — Reese, Morris, Smith, Poa and Kateri Poole each had two before the break — Carson carried the burden for the Tigers in the scoring column; she started 5-for-5 shooting from 3 (7-for-7 from the field), finishing with 21 points in the first half, the second most in a first half in championship game history.
After starting all season, Carson came off the bench beginning in LSU’s second-round NCAA tournament game, a decision Mulkey attributed to needing “bigger bodies” and liking the defensive flow the Tigers were able to establish with Poole in the lineup. A recent transfer addition from West Virginia, Carson “may be the second-best pure shooter” Mulkey said she has ever coached; but Carson was in a slump during the tournament, managing just 11 points across the event’s first five games, and hadn’t made a 3 since the second round.
“Everybody knew if Jasmine was on, we’re winning the natty,” Johnson said. “She’s a sharpshooter; that’s what she does.”
Smith and Poa also played big minutes in the second quarter, with the latter chipping in a pair of 3s during that frame. Reese even said that Mulkey was about to put her and Poole back in with two fouls, but with the reserves getting the job done, the coach told them to go sit back down.
“Poa hits a 3. Jasmine hits another 3. Sa’Myah’s in there battling. They won the game for us,” Mulkey said. “The game was won, in my opinion, in the second quarter when those three young ladies … got in there and they extended the lead.”
The Tigers outscored the Hawkeyes 32-20 in the second period, capped by Carson banking in a 3-pointer at the buzzer to put LSU ahead by 17, a shot Carson admitted even she was surprised went it.
“I just think it was meant to be,” Carson said. “It was just my night.”
With the shot, LSU reached 59 first-half points, the most in a single half in Final Four history.
Combine that bench energy with big nights from LSU’s regulars and the Tigers were nearly unstoppable. LaDazhia Williams came through with 20 points, her second most of the season, while Johnson added 10. After dealing with foul trouble in the first half, Morris kicked it into high gear over the final 20 minutes. Morris tallied 15 fourth-quarter points — going a perfect 6-for-6 shooting in the last 10 minutes to put the game away, a run capped by her 3-pointer with 24 seconds remaining that got the Tigers over the century mark.
“Guys, we scored 102 points,” Mulkey said. “That has to be some kind of record. So much for my hollering defense and rebounding, right? That’s a lot of points.”
ESPN’s Andrea Adelson contributed to this story.
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.