All eyes were on guard Hailey Van Lith once she opted to leave Louisville after cultivating one of the game’s top reputations in search of a new home.
The 5-foot-7 Van Lith was a primary scorer for the Cardinals, pouring in 1,553 career points, earning a pair of berths on the All-Atlantic Coast Conference first team. She was also an honorable mention All-America selection as a junior by The Associated Press and United States Basketball Association.
In her final season at Louisville, Van Lith joined Iowa’s Caitlyn Clark as one of two players nationally to average at least 19 points (19.7), 4 rebounds (4.5) and 3 assists (3.2).
Van Lith sought a change, though, and made her only official visit to LSU after the Tigers won the school’s first NCAA national championship under second-year coach Kim Mulkey.
Mulkey attempted to sign Van Lith out of Cashmere High in Wenatchee, Washington four years ago, but Louisville won that recruiting battle over Baylor.
With the Tigers set to return three starters from their 36-2 national title team, including first team All-America forward Angel Reese, off-guard Flau’jae Johnson and guard Kateri Poole, Mulkey made it clear to Van Lith that the primary need of the 2023-24 team would be at point guard.
LSU lost emotional leader, double-figure scorer and the team’s leader in assists, Alexis Morris, to graduation and the potential addition of Van Lith would require a role change from her time at Louisville.
“Hailey gets in the transfer portal knowing what we have,” Mulkey said after Thursday’s 87-70 win over Texas A&M. “That told me first that she’s got some unselfishness in her. She’s a very confident kid, but you’re going to sacrifice your comfortable position to come and try to learn a position that we need and a position that will help you go on and have a pro career.”
Van Lith’s adjustment to the team’s lead guard remains a work in progress but since her return from a four-game absence because of a foot injury, it’s easy to see what the spirited Van Lith brings to this year’s team that has a nation’s best 16-game winning streak.
No. 7 LSU (16-1, 3-0) continues Southeastern Conference play at 2 p.m. Sunday at Auburn (11-5, 0-3) on ESPN. The game will also be broadcast locally by 107.3-FM.
“Typical process of building team chemistry,” Van Lith said after she scored 14 points with three 3-pointers against A&M. “We’re not immune to the natural process of that. We’re getting to know each other better. We’re getting around each other more often. Now we’re playing tough competition, so it’s bringing out that competitive fire in all of us. We’re definitely having fun.”
Van Lith is part of a balanced offense where all five starters average double-figures led by Reese’s 20.7 points and Aneesah Morrow’s 18.6.
Van Lith is fifth on the team in scoring at 11.9 points, shooting 44.7% (55 of 123) from the field and 42.5% (17 of 40) from 3-point range. Despite her absence with plantar fasciitis, she’s still the team’s leader in assists (4.4) and is second in 3-pointers made but continues to work on reducing her turnovers (3.1) and helping to solidify LSU’s defense.
“It just happens to be the most difficult position on the floor,” said Mulkey, an All-America point guard at Louisiana Tech. “That’s not easy. She’s done everything we’ve asked her to do. I think she will get better and better at the little things you need to do as a point guard, but it won’t be from a lack of trying. The kids tries hard.
“Defensively, we just have to teach her to channel them (opposing players) to a sideline,” Mulkey said. “She’s going to give you effort. Sometimes you give me the most effort, but it’s wasted energy. I can help you if you just slow down a little bit and you get angles. I keep telling myself that’s part of the (team’s) problem on the defensive end. That we don’t take angles, we don’t help, and we don’t help the helper much. Just keep playing. Just keep getting better.”
Morrow and Van Lith were considered the two top players in the transfer portal and brought plenty of fanfare to LSU which was looking to plug in a pair of experienced players into a championship program.
Morrow is among the SEC’s top scorers at 18.6 points and rebounders at 9.4, and Van Lith reached double digits in seven of her first nine games before she was sidelined on Dec. 10. She twice recorded games with seven assists and has a plus assist-to-turnover rating during that stretch.
Van Lith returned for LSU’s final non-conference game against Jacksonville with 11 points, three 3-pointers, four steals with five assists and five turnovers.
In the first five minutes of play Van Lith displayed she could be one of the team’s top 3-point threats to compliment Mikaylah Williams, knocking down three 3-pointers in a five-minute span of the first quarter.
She started to show the ability to score from all three levels of the floor. She displayed the toughness needed to get around defenders and finish in traffic. There was also the mid-range game when opponents sagged off Reese or Morrow, and her knack for the 3-pointer was becoming more pronounced.
Van Lith scored 13 and 14 points, respectively, in her team’s last two wins over Ole Miss and Texas A&M.
Her 3-pointer on a pass from Reese finished off LSU’s first quarter for a 26-23 lead at Ole Miss and her pull-up 18-footer in transition capped a 9-0 run for a 61-53 lead after the Rebels had rallied to take the lead.
Van Lith had eight points, including a pair of 3-pointers, in the first seven minutes of Thursday’s game for a 32-21 lead. She added a 3-pointer for a 49-41 lead early in the third quarter and it was her three free throws after getting fouled that made it 76-49 with 8:17 to play.
“I think for a while there I was trying to fit into a mold that isn’t necessarily my game and now, I’m finding ways for me to be aggressive,” Van Lith said. “I’m not necessarily looking to take more shots. If that’s the right read, then I should shoot it. I’m getting a lot more comfortable with making that read. I still obviously can get better at honing in on those things. It’s a process for everybody and I’m committed to it.”