Angel Reese returns, scores 19 points as LSU defeats Virginia Tech in Final Four rematch

Angel Reese, the double-double All-American star for No. 5 LSU, came back with style Thursday night, scoring 19 points and grabbing nine rebounds in helping lead the defending national champion Tigers to an 82-64 win over No. 9 Virginia Tech in the inaugural women’s ACC/SEC challenge.

The game was a rematch of the 2023 national semifinal, which LSU also won, 79-72, on its way to the championship game. The win also marked a significant milestone for LSU coach Kim Mulkey — it was the 700th of her career. She's reached 700 victories faster than anyone in the women's or men's game, needing just 813 games to do so. As the team celebrated Mulkey's accomplishment, Reese and her coach shared a long embrace.

Reese picked up two quick fouls, and played just 15 minutes in the first half, scoring six points and grabbing five rebounds. Mulkey said at halftime that she was happy Reese was back and that the roster was finally able to play all together for the first time in two weeks, adding that “the team feeds off” Reese.

Thursday was the first game in more than two weeks for Reese, the Most Outstanding Player at the 2023 Final Four. Benched for the second half of LSU’s 109-79 win over Kent State on Nov. 14, Reese missed the Tigers’ next four games — and no one knew why.

LSU forward Angel Reese talks to coach Kim Mulkey during the game against Virginia Tech.
LSU forward Angel Reese talks to coach Kim Mulkey during the game against Virginia Tech.

Reese told ESPN’s Andraya Carter immediately after the game that it felt “great” to be back.

“My teammates have been holding it down, I'm just super happy to be back with the team,” Reese said. “This atmosphere, I missed it so much. I’m just happy to move forward and be back.”

Carter did not ask Reese why she’d been gone almost two weeks, and Reese didn’t volunteer the information. She was eager to talk about her teammates though, as five players scored in double figures in the win.

“It’s fun when we play like that,” Reese said. “When we play together, it’s unbelievable.”

Reese appeared jubilant when she joined the postgame press conference, joking to the media, “Who’s happy to see me? I know y’all are!”

No reporter asked Reese where she'd been the last two weeks or why she wasn't with the team.

Reese didn’t offer specifics either, but said “taking time to yourself is really important, resetting and refocusing … my mental health is the most important thing … taking a reset is OK, pros do it all the time. Don’t believe everything you read.

“I’m back and I’m happy and I’m here and I’m moving forward. I'm gonna help take this team as far as I can.”

Reese also spoke at length about LSU legend Shaquille O’Neal, one of her mentors who she talked with every day over the last two weeks while she was away.

“He checked on me, he called me every single day to make sure I was good,” Reese said. “He told me when I was right, he told me when I was wrong, he told me what I needed to do to get back to where I am."

What did Kim Mulkey say about Angel Reese's return?

Mulkey called Reese's return Thursday "a shot in the arm." It's the most specific she's been regarding Reese in weeks.

As speculation swirled about the junior forward’s absence, Mulkey was defiant in her refusal to explain why Reese wasn’t on the court or the bench. On Wednesday, after she announced Reese was back with the team, Mulkey pushed back on some of the coverage about Reese’s absence, saying she felt many of the pieces written became personal attacks.

In the postgame Thursday, after Reese had left, Mulkey was asked about mental health and "the importance of athletes, when they need to take a moment for themselves."

"Mental health," Mulkey started, before clarifying, "I don’t want you to think Angel was trying to tell you that. But we all, coaches included, have to take a deep breath."

Angel Reese embraces criticism

Reese is one of the biggest stars in college sports. She has an NIL deal with Reebok, posed in Sports Illustrated’s annual swimsuit issue after the Tigers’ title and is known as the “Bayou Barbie.” She’s frank in the media and of society’s assessment of her, and has made it clear she doesn’t care what others think or say.

“I don’t fit the narrative,” she said after LSU’s title win, when Reese was criticized for her trash talk to Iowa’s Caitlin Clark. “I don’t fit the box that you all want me to be in. I’m too hood, I’m too ghetto. You all told me that all year. But when the people do it, you all say nothing. So this is for the first who look like that me that’s going to speak up on what they believe in, that’s unapologetically you.”

She also dismissed the haters on social media.

“Twitter is going to go on a rage every time, and I’m happy,” she said. “I feel like I’ve helped grow women’s basketball this year.”

LSU next plays Sunday, when the Tigers host Louisiana Lafayette.

Follow Lindsay Schnell on social media: @Lindsay_Schnell

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Angel Reese returns as LSU defeats Virginia Tech in Final Four rematch