Must-see attraction: LSU’s defending national champions become big hit on road

No. 10 Tigers return home to host Arkansas at 4 p.m. Sunday

Former LSU guard Hailey Van Lith teamed up with former teammate Flau'jae Johnson for an NIL deal. PHOTO BY: LSU Athletics

LSU’s 20-year-old sophomore guard Flau’jae Johnson has developed a niche and a growing following as one the nation’s top rising rappers, evidenced by her recording contract with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation.

So, when Johnson’s 61-year-old Kim Mulkey coach attempted to find a comparison for what LSU women’s basketball team’s being subjected to on the road this season, the former Louisiana Tech All-American went back to her childhood.

Mulkey referenced “Beatlemania” which was an hysteria that gripped young music fans and resulted in high-pitched screams wherever the Beatles appeared in concert in the United States or aboard.

It’s the same kind of phenomena that’s taken place when LSU, dubbed “The Show”, takes its team on the road to play this season. The Tigers have already set four attendance records where fans arrive early to welcome their bus to the arena and stay late for pictures and autographs.

“Yeah, I don’t know what the Beatles was like, but coach is like, “It’s like the Beatles’,” Johnson said after Thursday’s 78-58 win at Alabama, which drew its biggest crowd ever of 5,575. “I think it’s so cool, kids are just so into it. And you know what I really loved the most about it is that whether I have a bad game, or I think I have a bad game, they still like love you … and you really inspire me.

“So, I kind of just have to remind myself you know, the little girls are here, the little boys are here and they’re looking up to you,” Johnson said. “So, it’s cool to have record-breaking crowds. We know people are going to come see us, but the deeper impact is that we have for the game and the way it’s growing is amazing to see.”

No. 10 LSU (17-2, 3-1) will get a brief reprieve this week from the road. The Tigers host Arkansas (14-5, 2-2) at 4 p.m. Sunday on ESPN and entertain No. 1 South Carolina (16-0, 4-0) at 7 p.m. Thursday on ESPN.

Both games will be carried locally by 107.3-FM.

Mulkey has raised the level of LSU’s program to championship heights in 2 ½ years. The Hall of Fame coach guided the Tigers to their first NCAA Championship, a 102-85 victory over Iowa, in a game played before 9.9 million viewers on ESPN.

The Tigers’ profile has also increased with three of women’s basketball most recognizable names – first team All-American Angel Reese, Johnson, the SEC Freshman of the Year, and Louisville transfer Hailey Van Lith.

According to On3 Sports’ Name, Image and Likeness valuations, LSU’s trio is among the sport’s three highest earners with Reese leading the way with $1.7 million annually. Reese, Johnson and Van Lith rank No. 1, 2 and 5 among women’s basketball players and are No. 6, 16 and 89 among the Top 100 overall.

“They’re drawn to your players,” said Mulkey, whose team leads the nation in scoring at 91.3 points per game. “It’s the defending national champions. Basically, with this generation and social media and celebrities and everything, but they’re coming to see these young ladies. They’re coming to touch them to just wave to them to take a picture with them, to sign an autograph. So, you probably saw all that after the game.

“All my players just came out there and hugged all those people that stayed, and these are not just LSU people,” Mulkey said. “These are people that love women’s basketball that are Alabama people, and that is good for our game. So, we welcome it. I mean, it’s not a distraction. It’s not something we go into a hostile environment and think everybody hates us. It’s like, OK, we’re doing our part to help grow this game of women’s basketball.”

When Mulkey made a return Nov. 17 to Tangipahoa Parish to face Southeastern Louisiana, the University Center had a record crowd of 7,500 waiting for the Hammond native and former Hammond High School star, whose team administered a 73-50 victory.

Mulkey took Reese back for a homecoming to her native Baltimore, Maryland on Dec. 20, the Tigers packed tiny Coppin State’s Physical Education Complex with a record 4,100 fans. Reese put on a show with a game-high 26 points and the Tigers ran away to an 80-48 victory where Coppin’s averaged 1,577 fans.

“If you look at our ratings, every time we play, it doesn’t matter who we play,” Mulkey said after the game. “The ratings are just crazy. They’re better than pro sports. And you saw an arena tonight that sold out a long time ago and it’s because of Angel Reese. It’s because of the national championship. It’s because of how we play the game. And it was very visible tonight.

“But it’s not just here, if you follow us in the SEC, go look at the attendance at the games when we’re on the road,” Mulkey said. “And just leaving the arena after the game, you can’t get out of the arena without people wanting an autograph or a picture. Our team has brought that much recognition and attention and that is good for not just us, but it’s good for women’s basketball.”

The first three road trips in the SEC have produced a reoccurring theme for LSU which played before record crowds at Ole Miss, Auburn and Alabama – helping to draw more than a total of 13,000 fans over their season norms.

LSU, which lost the lead in the third quarter, rallied and recaptured the momentum and lead for an 84-73 win over Ole Miss which had 9,074 fans on hand. The Tigers didn’t fare as well on the court against Auburn, having their 16-game winning streak snapped 67-62, but were treated to a crowd of 7,720.

The Tigers overcame a one-point halftime deficit against Alabama with a 26-point third quarter and outscored the Crimson Tide 44-43 in the second half. They were returned courtside to engage with fans – both young and old, male and female – for pictures and autographs before leaving for the night.

“Yeah, obviously, it’s just great for women’s basketball,” Van Lith said of the record crowd after the win over Alabama. “I think it’s special. We can go out and lose, I can go out and have the worst day of my life, and they’re still going to scream for me and cheer for me and it just shows that it’s really bigger than basketball at this point. We’re role models for these girls. We’re showing them, we’re paving the way for them and showing them what is possible now for female athletes.

“And I think that it is on us a little bit, too,” Van Lith said. “If we do have a bad game, we are struggling, we’ve got to go out there and we’ve got to smile for them and uplift them and encourage them so it’s really just a blessing. And we wouldn’t change it for the world, and we appreciate everybody who comes. A lot of people travel a long way to come watch us play.”

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William Weathers

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