NCAA semifinal rematch: No. 7 LSU hosting No. 9 Virginia Tech with All-America forward Angel Reese returning to lineup

Mulkey says Tigers still without guard Kateri Poole, lose forward Sa'Myah Smith for season

LSU forward Angel Reese (10) will play in her first game since Nov. 14 when the No. 7 Tigers host No. 9 Virginia Tech at 8 p.m. Thursday. PHOTO BY: Jonathan Mailhes

In what’s persisted for nearly two weeks LSU women’s basketball coach Kim Mulkey cleared up in one second.

First team All-America forward Angel Reese will be part of the No. 7 Tigers for their top 10 matchup Thursday with No. 9 Virginia Tech in the SEC/ACC Challenge at 8 p.m. in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center on ESPN.

The game will be carried locally over 107.3-FM.

“She’ll be available,” Mulkey opened her press conference Wednesday. “She will play tomorrow.”

Mulkey’s personnel update also included that junior guard Kateri Poole, who started in the last five games of last year’s NCAA Championship run, is still not back with the team, and sophomore forward Sa’Myah Smith is out for the rest of the season with a knee injury.

Reese, who helped LSU to its first national championship and was the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four, has not been with the team the past four games. She was benched at halftime of a Nov. 14 home game with Kent State and wasn’t with the team during its four-game win streak, including a trip to the Cayman Islands last weekend.

Mulkey said Reese, who averaged 17 points and 10.3 rebounds in the first four games of the season, has practiced in advance of her return to the court. Her role, whether she’ll start or come off the bench, wasn’t defined by Mulkey.

“Based on what I’ve seen I think Angel will just be Angel,” Mulkey said. “She’s just been good. She’s been really good in practice.”

When pressed for an explanation on Reese’s previous status, Mulkey wasn’t in the mood for sharing such information.

“Why would I tell you all that? What difference does it make,” said Mulkey. “A coach is entitled to play who they want whether they’ve practiced with the team or not. Angel is back and we’re happy, happy, happy. She’s happy, happy, happy. She’s available to play Thursday.

“It’s a boost having her back,” Mulkey added. “It’s not just against Virginia Tech, it’s for our team. She’s just a tremendous player. One of the best players in the country. It’s good. She gives a good matchup with (Virginia Tech’s Elizabeth) Kitley, but it’s not just for this one game. It’s for the rest of the season.”

Poole averaged 12.5 minutes in four appearances – all off the bench – but hasn’t played since a brief five-minute appearance during LSU’s 73-50 road win over Southeastern Louisiana. She wasn’t part of the team’s travel party to the Cayman Islands.

Smith was off to a terrific start in her first seven games, averaging a career-best 11.7 points and 7.6 rebounds, when she was injured in the first five minutes of a 99-65 victory over Niagara.

Mulkey said Smith, who suffered a similar knee injury to her left knee at DeSoto High School, tore the ACL, MCL and meniscus in her right knee and will qualify for a medical redshirt and get her year of eligibility back.

“The timing of her injury, it’s just so sad for her because she has improved by leaps and bounds,” Mulkey said of Smith. “She stayed here all summer. The timing of Angel being back kind of helps, but there’s no substitution for the value Sa’Myah adds to our team and what she’s meant thus far.”

The top 25-matchup is the first for LSU against a ranked opponent since a 92-78 setback to then No. 20 Colorado in the season opener.

The Tigers, who are riding a seven-game winning streak and defeated their four opponents by an average of 29.8 points without Reese, survived a 76-73 outing with Virginia on Saturday.

DePaul transfer Aneesah Morrow was named to the Cayman Island Classic all-tournament team, averaging 32.5 points and 13 rebounds and her 18.1-average leads five players in double figures. She also ranks third nationally with 28 steals.

Freshman Mikaylah Williams averages 17.5 points, graduate point guard Hailey Van Lith 12.9 points, 5.0 assists and Flau’jae Johnson 11.4 points and 7.4 rebounds.

LSU’s averages 95.3 points and will be challenged by a Va. Tech defense that’s allowing 58.3 points and 35.2% shooting from the field.

The Tigers and Hokies staged a memorable national semifinal seven months ago.

Reese and point guard Alexis Morris combined for 20 points in the fourth quarter and Johnson added five, fueling LSU’s comeback from a nine-point deficit entering the fourth quarter. The Tigers made 61% of their shots (11 of 18) and it was Johnson’s layup with 5:44 to play that gave her team the lead for good.

Johnson’s putback with 3:04 to go provided LSU with a 72-62 lead. Virginia Tech, which only made 2 of 10 shots in the quarter, endured a six-minute scoring drought.

“It wasn’t anything magical that we did in that fourth quarter,” Mulkey said. “I didn’t draw up any fabulous play. I just told them we had to have a sense of urgency. You’re down nine (79-70) going into the fourth quarter and we broke it down into two-minute segments. I would say, ‘you’ve got two minutes to cut into this lead’ and then I think (Va. Tech) coach (Kenny) Brooks called timeout and we were still down two. I told them the same thing, ‘’you’ve got two minutes to play with another sense of urgency’. We just got on a roll.”

Kitley, a 6-foot-6 graduate center, leads Virginia Tech with a double-double – 24.3 points and 11.5 rebounds – with senior guard Georgia Amoore next at 17.0 points and a team-high 17 3-pointers. Kitley had a double-double with 18 points and 12 rebounds, and Amoore 17 and guard Cayla King 14 – the backcourt duo combining for eight 3-pointers – in last year’s meeting with LSU.

“I think they’re different,” Mulkey said of the Hokies. “They had to replace some players. Those two players (Kitley and Amoore) are just so good. They’re just outstanding players. They’re their leaders. You have a big post presence that can face you up and then Amoore, I don’t think there’s a shot she can’t make. She’s just so efficient with her ability to score the ball.”

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