‘We’re relevant’: LSU coach Kim Mulkey believes her No. 9 team proved a point in narrow loss to top-ranked South Carolina

Tigers have to respond with road game against Mississippi State on Monday

LSU freshman center Aalayah Del Rosario (23) blocks a shot in Thursday's 76-70 setback against No. 1 South Carolina. The No. 9 Tigers visit Mississippi State on 6 p.m. Monday. PHOTO BY: Jonathan Mailhes

LSU women’s basketball coach Kim Mulkey anticipated a restless night of sleep Thursday following her team’s 76-70 loss to No. 1 South Carolina.

What the Tigers third-year coach did look forward to though, was a team that hadn’t fallen very far from their national championship capability of a year ago.

“Competitors don’t like to lose. It’s just a tough pill to swallow,” Mulkey said afterward. “There are more games to play. Are we a better team tonight than we were two weeks ago and three weeks ago? Sure, we are. If you’re not getting better, then you’re not doing your job as coaches and as players and we’re better. I think we’re one of the top teams in the country, losing to South Carolina the way we did sent a message that we’re not going away.”

For the second straight year LSU (18-3, 5-2 in SEC) must respond after getting knocked down by South Carolina.

A year ago, the Tigers, who were undefeated with a 23-0 record, suffered a 88-64 blowout loss to the No. 1 Gamecocks that effectively knocked them out of the race for the Southeastern Conference championship.

LSU’s answer? The Tigers won 11 of their last 12 games, including the last six, to win the school’s first NCAA championship with a 102-85 win over Iowa.

LSU faced with a similar task, traveling to Mississippi State (16-5, 3-3) for a 6 p.m. contest Monday that will be broadcast by ESPN2. The game will also be carried locally by 107.3-FM.

“We’ll learn from it just like did when we went to South Carolina last year,” Mulkey said. “It’s just one game.”

LSU has a blueprint to follow in the aftermath of losing to South Carolina. The Tigers were able to host Ole Miss, an eventual Sweet 16 team, and followed the monster performance of forward Angel Reese’s 36 points and 20 rebounds to a 69-60 victory over the Rebels.

South Carolina (18-0, 6-0 in SEC) featured an imposing task to conquer. Led by 6-foot-7 center Kamilla Cardosa, and a well-balanced lineup, the Tigers led for 33 of the 40-minute contest, building their biggest lead of 11 points on six occasions in the first half.

“We fought hard,” LSU sophomore Flau’jae Johnson said after the South Carolina game. “I thought in the first half we played some great basketball against the No. 1 team in the nation. I’m proud of my teammates. I’m proud of Angel for stepping up and guarding Cardoso big. I’m proud of Aneesah (Morrow) hitting those shots, I’m proud of Mikaylah (Williams) for keeping her poise as a freshman. I’m proud of Hailey (Van Lith). She had some mishaps, but she hit some shots and tried to keep us under control. I’m proud of everybody.”

Could LSU’s latest loss, amid a big stage and ESPN viewing audience enhanced by College GameDay’s attendance, serve as a rallying point?

The Tigers have endured a bumpy season in their pursuit of successfully defending their national championship.

There was a season-opening 92-78 loss to Colorado, currently the third-ranked team nationally, followed by the four-game absence of Reese for undisclosed reasons, and a season-ending knee injury to sophomore forward Sa’Myah Smith. That was followed by the dismissal of junior point guard Kateri Poole and a four-game absence of Van Lith with a foot injury.

Players such as Morrow, who began the season coming off the bench, have been a double-double constant in the team’s starting lineup, including Thursday’s 16 points and 10 rebounds against South Carolina. Junior guard Last-Tear Poa saw a boost in her playing time in the absence of Van Lith along with freshman center Aalayah Del Rosario who’s filled in Smith’s role as the first post player off the bench.

What the near-miss against South Carolina showed was that after all of the program’s upheaval through the first two months of the season, LSU can still be a viable threat in the NCAA Tournament which opens in March.

“As a team we’re coming together, we’re getting to know each other,” Morrow said after the South Carolina game. “We’re playing together, and this is something we have to do better as a team.”

LSU didn’t lose its handle on the lead against South Carolina until the final six minutes of play.

Reese was encountering foul difficulty and was in and out of the lineup in the fourth quarter. She only took one shot, grabbed a rebound and didn’t score in her three-plus minutes of action until fouling out with 4:02 remaining. But the Tigers hung around and thanks to Van Lith’s 3-pointer, were tied at 70-70 with 1:40 to play.

South Carolina showed off its depth and championship pedigree over the remainder of the game, making three of its last four shots, compared to LSU going 1 of 7 since Van Lith’s basket and was outscored 9-3 since Reese’s departure.

“What I know is we’re relevant,” Mulkey said. “We’re one of the top teams in the country. It was a very good game.”

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William Weathers

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