Her teammates, which included all of LSU’s starters, erupted from the bench at the sight of freshman Aalayah Del Rosario rebounding Angela Velez’ missed jump shot.
With the Tigers having already flexed their muscle in a record-setting 133-44 triumph over McNeese, the celebration wasn’t for the program’s greatest point total ever or record margin of victory.
This was about Del Rosario’s own triumph, corralling her 10th rebound to go with her team-high 27 points – both of which were career highs and represented her first career double-double.
Once Velez dribbled out the remainder of the clock and the horn sounded the entire LSU team, instead of initially going through the handshake line, darted toward Del Rosario near the baseline to celebrate her milestone.
“My teammates are my No. 1 supporters,” Del Rosario said after the game. “On practice, on games and even outside of practice, they’re my No. 1 supporters. That feeling they had on the bench made me feel like it was my time. They’ve always been there in the bad and good things, so that was really good for them to do that.”
The 6-foot-6 Del Rosario came off the bench and led six players in double figures, was one of three to register double-doubles, and LSU (10-1) won its 10th consecutive game. The Tigers host Northwestern State at 2 p.m. Sunday.
Del Rosario made 10 of 14 shots and 7 of 14 free throws to reach double figures in scoring for the second time this season. Her point total surpassed that of her previous four games combined, a span in which her playing time’s increased with the loss of sophomore forward Sa’Myah Smith to a season-ending injury.
“I’ve watched her body change,” LSU coach Kim Mulkey said. “I’ve watched her body become leaner and she’s just mobile now. She moves, she runs. You saw her do a couple of things tonight. Aalayah couldn’t do that earlier in the year and she’s very proud of herself and when you do things like that and you see results, the first thing is you become really confident.”
One game earlier, in a 83-53 victory on Sunday over UL-Lafayette, Mulkey shared a story about her motivational tactics with Del Rosario.
She described a polite, timid player with all of the ability in the world that, with her new-found playing time in Smith’s absence, needed to go harder in practice and in games.
“I don’t know what it is about big girls. They’re always the nicest,” Mulkey said after the Dec. 10th game. “I tell them they’re like big Teddy Bears. I told Aalyah I don’t want you to be a Kia, I want you to be a Mack Truck. She loves that. She just thinks that’s funny.
“I just want her to play like a Mack Truck and then when we get off this court, you be a Kia, be whatever you want to be,” Mulkey said. “When you’re on this floor, use what God gave you and blessed you with. She’s a very nice, good kid. Sometimes I’ll see something come out in her, and I’ll go, ‘yes, I’m getting deep in that soul right there to make her mad.’ She has all the skills. She just needs some playing time.”
With Smith tearing her knee in the opening minutes on a Nov. 24 game with Niagara in the Cayman Islands, Del Rosario’s averaged 16 minutes a game in a reserve role.
Overall, the former five-star recruit and nation’s No. 4 overall prospect out of The Webb School in Tennessee, averages 6.9 points and 3.6 rebounds in 13.4 minutes per game. She’s shooting 59.4% (29 of 49) from the floor and had blocked seven shots with seven steals.
“I’ve played with her since she came to the United States which was in middle school,” Velez said of Del Rosario, who was born in the Dominican Republic before moving to The Bronx, New York. “Just seeing her put in so much work, it was amazing to see her perform like that. It started with her work ethic. Once we came here coach Mulkey’s been on her about getting in shape, being dominant and she’s risen to the occasion. I’ve been by her side, good days and bad days. Just to see her play good after all the hard work it’s so special.”
Mulkey said Del Rosario laid the foundation for a successful leap from high school star to college freshman this summer. Instead of accepting a spot on a U.S. national age-group team, Del Rosario reported to LSU for summer school and had a procedure to ‘clean up’ an existing ankle injury which slowed her in high school.
“Our coaches talked to me to talk to her,” Mulkey said of Del Rosario. “USA Basketball’s a big deal, but make her understand if she wants to be in the mix here, she may want to get that thing (ankle) looked at. If there’s some kind of clean up that needs to be done with the physicians, let’s do it this summer and let’s get her well so that when we start in the fall, she’s not having to do it then.
“She chose to come in the summer and anytime you’re injured, you’re on an island by yourself in that you really don’t feel a part of the team,” Mulkey added. “In the summer you don’t feel that as much because you’re not playing a season. I thought it was a great decision on her part to come and get that ankle cleaned up, learn about nutrition, have her own individual workouts with (strength and conditioning coach) Thomas (Lene’) and our trainer. They worked with her in getting that ankle well.”
Mulkey was able to bring Del Rosario along slowly, playing behind veterans in first team All-America forward Angel Reese, Smith and DePaul transfer Aneesah Morrow. She averaged eight minutes and scored a total of 14 points with nine rebounds through the first five games before a breakthrough performance of 14 points and five rebounds in 23 minutes against Texas Southern.
Smith was injured five minutes into the game with Niagara, a time where Reese was away from the team for unspecified reasons, and Del Rosaro became LSU’s first post player off the bench.
Del Rosario scored seven key points in a 76-73 victory over Virginia in the team’s final game of the Cayman Islands Classic. She added seven points and battled 6-6 senior standout Elizabeth Kitley in a 82-64 home win over Virginia Tech followed by solid performances against UL-Lafayette and McNeese.
“Her size helps us,” Mulkey said after the UL-Lafayette win. “She’s in the best shape of her life. She’s moving her feet better. She’s playing very confident. She can alter shots. I thought her (16) minutes were outstanding.”
Del Rosario believes she’s headed in the right direction.
“For me it’s just about progress,” she said. “Compared to the beginning of the season, and when I came here, I was not in the best shape, and I feel like I’m in the best shape I’ve been. The support from my teammates and the coaching staff has been amazing. Thanks to them that’s why I got what I got (Tuesday against McNeese).”