The No. 7 LSU women’s basketball team was having a difficult time shaking free of visiting Missouri in Thursday’s opener of Southeastern Conference play.
Sophomore guard Flau’jae Johnson, although winded from the first 17 minutes of the game, was able to dig down deep on the defensive end to swing the momentum in her team’s favor.
With Missouri’s Grace Slaughter driving in for a potential layup, Johnson was able to block the shot off the backboard, which ricocheted Hailey Van Lith rebounded, passed to Mikaylah Williams who spotted Angel Reese ahead of the pack for a game-tying three-point play.
There were four more lead changes over the last five minutes of the quarter until LSU gained a one-point halftime lead and exploded in the third quarter en route to a 92-72 victory before 11,266 at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.
“That one play taught me a lot,” said Johnson, who led four double-figure scorers with a season-high 24 points. “I was so tired. I did not want to run back, but in the back of my head I didn’t want (associate head) coach Bob (Starkey) to catch me on film (lagging) behind.
“I went and hit her with my left (hand), and that shows you how one play can change the whole momentum,” Johnson said. “Going hard for that one play can change the whole trajectory of the game on defense, not even on offense.”
LSU coach Kim Mulkey was impressed by Johnson’s show of athleticism.
“That blocked shot was (ESPN) SportsCenter material,” Mulkey said.
LSU (14-1) opened a 71-49 lead after the third quarter, outscoring Missouri (9-5), 32-17 and never turning back in winning its 14th consecutive game.
Johnson, a first team All-SEC preseason selection, made 11 of 17 shots, grabbed five rebounds, had three steals and dished out three assists.
“I thought from start to finish,” Mulkey said, “Flau’jae was outstanding tonight.”
DePaul transfer Aneesah Morrow, appearing in her first SEC game, registered her ninth straight double-double with 25 points and 10 rebounds which resulted in the 1,000th rebound of her career. Reese had her seventh double-double with 21 points and 12 rebounds and four assists, while freshman Mikaylah Williams had nine of her 11 in the second half.
“I don’t know what’s the magic Kim’s got at halftime but that third quarter seems to be problem for everyone,” Missouri coach Robin Pingeton. “We talked about those first five minutes coming out of half. They just took it to a whole different level.”
Morrow scored eight points during the fourth quarter and enabled LSU to maintain no worse than a 17-point lead over the remainder of the last nine minutes of the game. The Tigers rebuilt their lead to as many as 25 points, the second time on Last-Tear Poa’s layup with under two minutes left.
LSU shot 50% (36 of 72) for the game, scored 52 points in the paint and outscored Missouri 29-15 by forcing 18 turnovers. They scored the second-most points against Missouri this season which allowed 66.3 per game.
LSU completely turned the game into a blowout after a five-point trip down court from Hayley Franks that drew Missouri within 47-41 at the 7:33 mark of the third quarter.
Reese was called for a two-shot intentional foul which was confirmed by video replay, and Franks added a 3-pointer on the ensuing possession. She led Missouri with 22 points, including four of the Tigers’ nine 3-pointers.
LSU answered, though, with an inside basket from Morrow and Williams ended a 0-of-5 shooting start with a steal and 3-pointer, enabling the Tigers to regain a double-digit lead (42-31) at the 6:46 mark for the remainder of game.
Johnson scored 10 of her game-high total in the quarter, knocking down a 3-pointer on an inbounds pass from Reese, and added a drive following a steal. She also fed Reese for a layup that capped a 13-0 run and made it 60-41 with less than five minutes showing.
“I think it was just getting a feel for the game,” Johnson said of LSU’s play after half. “I was like at halftime, they showed us what they’ve got. Are we going to keep getting beat by the same thing, are or we going to start talking and communicating? It was fun to see us come out and switch and get those steals. I was like, oh yeah, our defense is getting better. That’s hard to do against them. They’re so smart. It’s not set plays. they’re reading you.”
Williams and Hailey Van Lith, who both didn’t score in the opening half, came to life by combining for six straight points, including Williams making 1-of-2 technical foul shots against Pingeton who was whistled for being outside of the coaches’ box.
LSU’s run after the intentional foul reached 19-5 on Williams’ foul shot and Tigers opened a 71-49 lead going into the fourth quarter with 60% shooting in the quarter with three 3-pointers.
LSU changed the lead for the seventh time in the first half with an 8-0 run over the last 3:55 for a 39-32 halftime lead.
The homestanding Tigers altered their chances in the second quarter on the defensive end, limiting the visitors to a pair of made field goals in their 12 attempts and 27.8% shooting overall.
Reese had seven points in the quarter, starting LSU’s late run with a pair of free throws that was the fourth lead change over the last 2 ½ minutes of play. Morrow followed with an inside basket, and the Tigers went 4 of 4 from the from the line with Last-Tear Poa and Williams in the last 50 seconds of play.
“I thought the intensity was there,” Mulkey said. “I thought the will was there. Fatigue set in early and that’s not unexpected.”
There were a pair of lead changes and a tie in the first three minutes of play when LSU built a 20-13 lead on the strength of Johnson turning a pair of steals into transition layups. A second-chance basket gave her team their biggest lead of seven points when Missouri, which made three 3-pointers shot 50%, closed with the last six points and trailed, 20-19.
“Us coming out in the third quarter and getting those defensive stops,” Johnson said, “I feel like that was a big momentum turner for the whole season.”