It’s the longest stretch of the season in between games.
The No. 7 LSU women’s basketball team take an 8-1 record into exam week riding a seven-game winning streak following their finest moment of the first month of the season.
The Tigers, who host UL-Lafayette at 2 p.m. Dec. 10, dealt with a sense of tumult over their first nine games, beginning with a jolting 92-78 loss to then No. 20 Colorado in the season opener. They also lost the services of first team All-America forward Angel Reese for four games because of unspecified reasons, continue to be without junior guard Kateri Poole and won’t have improved sophomore forward Sa’Myah Smith the rest of the way because of season-ending knee injury.
LSU welcomed back Reese to its starting lineup in Thursday’s top 10 matchup with No. 9 Virginia Tech in the SEC/ACC Challenge and at times resembled a team worthy of repeating as NCAA champions with an 82-64 victory before a home crowd of 10,790.
“Just the things we’ve been through,” LSU third-year coach Kim Mulkey said after Thursday’s game. “With what you saw out there you had to go, ‘Wow’. They really hadn’t been on the floor together. When they’re on the floor for longer periods of time and it all becomes a thing of beauty, how special can we be? You saw happiness out there. You saw kids high-fiving out there, you saw when we got behind kids lifting other kids up. You saw some roles that now have changed a little bit.”
Freshman Mikaylah Williams was one of four players in double figures with 20 points, leading LSU’s balanced effort which was sparked by the team’s defensive play over the last three quarters of play.
Williams scored 11 of her team-high total in the second half and Morrow added 11 of her 19 in the first half, helping LSU rally from as much as a nine-point deficit to lead 35-29 at halftime.
Williams made 9 of 15 shots, pulled down six rebounds, handed out five assists to go with two steals in 36 minutes.
“Her confidence is just amazing,” Reese said. “She’s not a regular freshman. You don’t see a freshman come in so confident, just being able to translate from high school to college and she’s done that. She’s willing to learn. She works hard. She sits in the gym and works on the things she needs to work on, and I think that really helps our team because she knows her role.”
Mulkey further sang the praises of Williams, the nation’s top-rated recruit out of Parkway High in Bossier City.
“She’s just a talent,” said Mulkey, who picked up the 700th win of her 24-year career. “When’s the last freshman in this program that does what she does? When’s the last freshman to come in here and be in the rotation or starting five? She’s just talented. Is she going to make mistakes? Yes, she’s a freshman. I took her out a couple of times to get her attention, but she knows she’s going right back in. There are certain parts of her game that she has no clue how good she can be, and I think Flau’jae (Johnson) helps her.”
Morrow, last week’s SEC and national Player of the Week after averaging 32.5 points and 13.0 rebounds in the Cayman Islands Classic, turned in her third consecutive double-double in the win over Virginia Tech with 19 points, a game-high 15 rebounds and game-high three steals.
“I want to play against some of the best talent in the country and play with some of the best teammates in the country as well,” Morrow said of decision to transfer from DePaul. “I know a lot of people said that what I did (was) at DePaul, but I can perform on any level period, and I showed that.”
Reese matched Morrow with 19 points and was a rebound shy of a double-double. She made 5 of 10 shots from the field, was 9 of 16 at the free throw line with two assists, a steal and blocked shot in 29 minutes – her first playing time since a Nov. 14 home game with Kent State.
“Proud of her,” Mulkey said of her star player. “Not really the production proud. Just proud of how she handled herself, proud of how she was back to the Angel everybody knows. Proud of how her teammates embraced her, proud of how she treated everybody. She loved seeing everybody. This is where she’s comfortable.”
During her unexplained absence from the team Reese said she received support from her mother Angel Reese Webb and former LSU All-American Shaquille O’Neal. She became business partners before the season when O’Neal, a partial owner of Reebok, signed her to an NIL deal.
“I talked to Shaq every day,” Reese said. “We FaceTimed every day. He checked on me, he called me every single day to make sure I was good. He told me every day, ‘this too shall pass. This too shall pass. This too shall pass.’ He’s been here before. He knows what it takes. Just being able to have somebody like that was something good for me. He told me when I was right, he told me when I was wrong and what I needed to do to get back to where I am.”
LSU outscored Virginia Tech, which it defeated in last year’s national semifinal, 69-44 over the last three quarters of play and handed the Hokies their worst loss since last year.
The game was tied four times over the first five minutes of the second quarter when point guard Last-Tear Poa kick-started an 8-0 run with a pair of three throws for a 29-27 edge with 4:31 left before halftime.
Reese hit a cutting Johnson on a layup, Poa added two more free throws and Williams hit a 15-footer from the baseline for a 33-27 before Va. Tech’s Elizabeth Kitley made it 35-29 at halftime.
Williams and guard Hailey Van Lith combined on back-to-back 3-pointers, two of the team’s three in the game, to extend LSU’s lead to 49-37, and Johnson finished an 18-8 surge in the quarter with a pair of layups for a 53-35 cushion at the 5:42 mark.
The Tigers, who won all four of their games in Reese’s absence, flourished when she went to the bench with three fouls and five minutes to play. They twice increased their lead to 16 points on drives from Van Lith and Morrow and took a 61-48 lead into the fourth quarter.
“Angel is one of the best players I’ve coached, and I’ve coached many,” Mulkey said. “Angel is Angel. What I saw on the floor was special by everyone that got to play, and it was absolutely wonderful.”
LSU didn’t let off the gas.
The Tigers, who outrebounded the Hokies by 14 and held them to 40.6% shooting, never allowed their lead to dip below 13 the rest of the way.
Reese scored nine points, including 7 of 10 shooting at the foul line, and it was her basket with 1:01 to go following a turnover that provided LSU with an 82-60 cushion.
“Any win is a nice shot in the arm,” Mulkey said. “There’s a lot of things that would be a shot in the arm. Having Angel back, watching them play at a (high) level for a long period of time was just good.”