DALLAS — Alexis Morris took a modern route to the national championship game: from Baylor to Rutgers to Texas A&M to LSU and then through Virginia Tech’s defense. It was a long journey for a player who gets from Point A to Point B so quickly, but it will end where she expected to be in the beginning: playing to win a title with Kim Mulkey.
LSU has gone deeper into the NCAA tournament than ever before, making this achievement both unprecedented and entirely predictable. This is why the school hired Mulkey from Baylor two springs ago. She won three national titles at Baylor. Her last 11 teams there finished in the top 10. This kind of run was going to happen. But Mulkey can’t quite believe it happened so fast.
“We’re playing for a national championship, guys, and I just got there,” she said. “Never ever do you think you’re gonna do something like this in two years.”
LSU’s 79–72 semifinal win over Virginia Tech came together the same way the roster did: quickly. The Hokies surprised the Tigers with a zone, partly out of design (“We knew we had it in our back pocket that we wanted to try it,” Virginia Tech coach Kenny Brooks said) and partly out of necessity: Forward Taylor Soule had two fouls, and Brooks didn’t want her getting a third. LSU responded by running an offense that would have made Les Miles proud: stay still, stay still, stay still, punt. By the time the fourth quarter began, Virginia Tech led 59–50.
The clock said LSU had 10 minutes to come back. Mulkey told her players they had two.
“I didn’t want them to get comfortable thinking they had a lot of time,” Mulkey said.
Morris and Angel Reese turned the fourth quarter into five straight two-minute drills. They each scored 10 points in the fourth. LSU outscored Virginia Tech 29–13. When LSU needed its stars to be great, they were magnificent.
“I just don’t think we were good enough to stop Morris coming down and playing with that confidence,” Hokies guard Georgia Amoore said. “They just really took over with the intensity.”
Mulkey had sought this kind of energy all night. She said she pulled Reese off the floor “a couple times because I didn’t think she was getting up and down the floor. I thought she acted winded.” At halftime, Reese had two rebounds. Two! Angel Reese gets two rebounds while brushing her teeth. She said she took the rebounding failure personally. But Virginia Tech center Elizabeth Kitley looked at Reese’s stat line at halftime and had another thought: She’s not in foul trouble. Kitley figured Reese was going to come at her hard in the second half. She was right.
Reese finished with 24 points and 12 rebounds, and Kitley paid the price for them, as she often does. (“That woman cops a beating every single night,” Amoore said of Kitley. “Elbows thrown, all of that.”) Reese moves so well from side to side that boxing her out is almost impossible; when she is aggressive, she just overwhelms opponents.
But Reese puts up big numbers almost every game. To advance, LSU needed Morris to do the same. Morris was not exactly a model of efficiency—she needed 27 shots to score 27 points—but she applied intense pressure on Virginia Tech on both ends of the floor. If you believe a guard can will a team to win, you could use Morris’s performance Friday night to make the case.
“You go with who’s hot and fortunately I was hot tonight,” Morris said. “I was due a good game. I owed my team this game.”
The Tigers are like no other Mulkey team and every other Mulkey team. The transfer portal sped up the process, but the Tigers have responded to the coach’s tough-love style, even when it seems more tough than love. LSU is feisty and defiant, and even on a night when the Tigers looked overwhelmed at times, they summoned a dominant stretch.
“We have that swag,” Reese said.
“Facts,” Morris said.
Maybe Mulkey did not expect this. But now her players expect even more.
“I’m super excited that we won,” Morris said. “But I’m hungry. I’m greedy. I want to win it all.”