Adjusting on the fly: Early-game injury forces No. 7 LSU into different mode that produces same big results

Tigers, without All-American Angel Reese again, turns to Morrow, Van Lith to demolish Niagara

LSU freshman Mikaylah Williams (12) was one of four players in double figures with 19 points and the Tigers overcame to loss of Sa'Myah Smith with a 99-65 victory Friday over Niagara in the Cayman Islands Classic. PHOTO BY: LSU athletics

The game of attrition struck the No. 7 LSU women’s basketball team five minutes into Friday’s game at the Cayman Islands Classic.

With the Tigers playing their third straight game without first team All-American Angel Reese, they lost the services of this year’s most improved player – Sa’Myah Smith – in a game they wound up controlling throughout with Niagara, 99-65.

The top two players in the NCAA transfer portal – Aneesah Morrow of DePaul and Hailey Van Lith of Louisville – enjoyed their finest scoring moments in an LSU uniform with 28 and 20 points, respectively. They were part of a group of four players in double figures scoring, joined by freshman Mikaylah Williams with 19 and sophomore Flau’jae Johnson with 14.

Morrow’s first double-double at LSU – 28 points and 10 rebounds to go with a team-best five steals and a pair of blocks – was the 54th of her career, while Johnson had eight rebounds and Van Lith seven assists. Guard Last-Tear Poa added five points, five assists and three steals.

LSU cashed in 29 turnovers into 34 points and had 13 steals. The Tigers shot 57.1% (36 of 63) from the field but turned the ball over 21 times against Niagara’s constant pressure.

“Those kids can score with anybody in the country,” LSU coach Kim Mulkey said on her postgame radio show. “I’m proud that Williams, who I basically had to use as a post player to break the press. She just filled in beautifully because she’s such a tremendous passer and sees the floor really well. She’ s just a ballplayer and does whatever you ask her to do.”

No. 7 LSU (6-1), which won its sixth straight game, faces Virginia, an 81-59 winner over Tulane, at 4 p.m. Saturday. The game will be carried by 107.3-FM.

The start of the LSU-Niagara game was delayed a short time when the fire alarm at John Gray High School Gymnasium was sounded.

LSU experienced a scary moment when Smith, who was in transition, went down with an apparent knee injury.

Smith was ahead of the pack on a fastbreak opportunity when her legs were clipped by Niagara’s Alyssa Rossingnol on the way to the goal. She attempted to limp off the court on her own but required assistance in leaving the floor.

Smith later reappeared at the end of the team’s bench with an icebag on her right knee.

The Tigers went with a four-guard approach, substituting Poa for Smith, and never looked back with an 8-0 run that resulted in a 28-14 lead after the first quarter.

LSU made 7 of its first 9 shots to fuel its 8-0 surge which Poa finished with a layup and 23-8 lead off a feed from Morrow with 2:35 showing. Williams finished the quarter with a 3-pointer with 38 seconds to go.

“With Sa’Myah going down in the first five minutes I thought we adjusted,” Mulkey said. “I went small. I thought we adjusted and did some things. We handled the ball pretty good considering those guys just press you the whole game. I thought Morrow, undersized as a post, was really special for us. We shot the ball good.”

Two free throws from Van Lith triggered a 21-0 avalanche that effectively put the game out of reach with a 49-17 cushion with 3:20 before halftime.

Morrow began to heat up from the field with eight points, Van Lith five – including a 3-pointer – and Williams four until Alyssa Rossignol’s free throw ended Niagara’s six-plus minute scoring drought with 3:08 to play in the quarter. Amelia Strong’s turnaround 11 seconds later ended the Purple Eagles’ 0 of 7 shooting.

Four different players contributed to LSU’s largest lead of 60-23 on Johnson’s spin move off a drive, Van Lith’s two free throws and Morrow’s steal and drive.

LSU matched its 37-point lead with 5:29 left in the third quarter on Johnson’s free throw when the Tigers reeled off the last 11 points of the quarter, including five from Van Lith and Morrow, to make it 81-39 going into the fourth quarter.

Niagara (2-3) scored the first two points of the second quarter on Chardonnay Hartley’s two free throws and didn’t score again for the next six-plus minutes. Hartley had a team-high of 16 points.

“I don’t know how long Sa’Myah’s out. I don’t know what the injury is,” Mulkey said. “We know Angel’s out right now and hopefully she’ll be back sooner than later, but at the end of the day, this is (about) opportunity. When your opportunity knocks, whether you’re a starter or coming off the bench, do something. We won.”

NOTES: Reserve point guard Kateri Poole, who started the team’s last five games of the NCAA Tournament, also wasn’t with the team for the first time this year. She’s averaged 2.0 points and 1.8 rebounds in four games but has only played sparingly in the first half (vs. Southeastern Louisiana) in her team’s last four games. … The Tigers were outrebounded, 39-38, and the Purple Panthers pulled down 17 offensive boards. … Smith picked up her first technical foul of the season at the 7:38 mark after an exchange with Niagara’s Sage Glover.

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William Weathers

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