LSU first team All-America forward Angel Reese said it’s there without seeing, touching or tasting it.
The omnipresent feeling that’s attached to being a defending national champion is tangible and becomes the responsibility of the current team to handle it, not allowing it to become a distraction.
LSU found that out the hard way in its Nov. 6 season opener against Colorado which led turned a six-point halftime lead into a 14-point (92-78) victory in the nation’s preseason No. 1 ranked team in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Since then the Tigers have dealt with a four-game absence by Reese, a season-ending knee injury to sophomore forward Sa’Myah Smith, a foot injury to starting point guard Hailey Van Lith that’s cost her four games and the dismissal of junior point guard Kateri Poole from the team.
Still, LSU’s ranked No. 7, has reeled off 12 consecutive victories, has welcomed back Reese and made adjustments to the team that have opened the door for Last-Tear Poa and Aalaya Del Rosario to make big contributions.
LSU (12-1) returns from a 10-day Christmas break to host Jacksonville University (4-8) at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center. The game will be streamed by the SEC Network+ and carried locally by 107.3-FM.
“Of course, there’s always pressure,” Reese said after a Dec. 20 return to her native Baltimore in a 80-48 win at Coppin State. “I feel like we have a lot of hype around us. They’ve said a lot of things about our team. (Like) There’s only one basketball, but we all shine in different areas.
“That’s something I love about this team,” Reese said. “Nobody cares about who scores. Nobody cares anything about that stuff. We just want to win, and I think we’ve all come together.”
The return of Reese, which includes two of her five double-doubles, has been part of an LSU team that’s enjoyed a 49-point margin of victory in December. She’s averaging a double-double for the season with team highs of 19.9 points and 10.0 rebounds.
DePaul transfer Aneesah Morrow, an all-tournament member in the Cayman Island Classic, has produced seven consecutive doubles-doubles (8 for the season) and provided LSU with a constant scoring and rebounding source opposite of Reese. She’s averaging 18.3 points, 9.5 rebounds and a team-best 38 steals.
“I would imagine people use that,” LSU coach Kim Mulkey said after the Coppin game on whether opponents circle their games with the defending national champion. “If you’re giving a scouting report, you can’t help but talk about it. I would think there’s a lot of things people talk about when you describe LSU. The personalities on the team, the way we play the game. It’s not going to faze us or make us change how we play.”
Freshman Mikaylah Williams is one of four active players in double figures, averaging 17.2 points with 4.8 rebounds, and sophomore guard Flau’jae Johnson averages 12 points, 6.3 steals and is second to Morrow with 33 steals.
Poa’s averaging 24 minutes with 5.2 points and 3.6 assists in the role of the team’s point guard that may get a boost with Van Lith’s anticipated return against Jacksonville. She last saw action on Nov. 30 against Virginia Tech with seven points and five assists in 35 minutes.
Through that span that bridged the voids of Reese and Smith, Del Rosario has averaged 16.2 minutes off the bench, 9.1 points and 6.4 rebounds. She averages 7.1 points and 4.5 rebounds for the season.
LSU will settle into a routine of playing SEC games on Thursday and Sunday with Missouri visiting on Jan. 4 at 8 p.m. followed by a road trip Jan. 7 at Ole Miss at 2 p.m.
Jacksonville of the Atlantic Sun Conference brings in a three-game losing streak, including a 99-61 setback to Alabama on Dec. 20 in its final game before the Christmas break. The Dolphins of first-year coach Special Jennings are led by 5-7 junior guard Edyn Battle (19.9 points, 16 3s), who has scored in double figures in all 12 games, and 6-1 freshman forward Saniya Craig, who averages 12 points and 6.8 rebounds in eight games.
“What is affecting us probably more than anything right now is just continuity,” Mulkey said. “We don’t have Hailey Van Lith. You’ve just got to have all of them out there for a long period of time. Sa’Myah Smith, Kateri Poole … and Angel was gone a while. You’ve had a lot of in and out of the lineup. If we could ever just all be there for a long period of time, I think we can make a run at it.”