GREENVILLE, S.C. — Kim Mulkey climbed the ladder with her grandchild clutched tight, sending reflective sparkles from her blazer through Bon Secours Wellness Arena as she cut down the final threads of the net. Weeks earlier, she had been here at the SEC tournament without the chance to play the day nets were cut. Take it even further back to the offseason or when she first took the job, and this isn’t what Mulkey realistically envisioned for her second season as LSU head coach.
LSU will still be playing on college basketball’s final weekend after a 54-42 win against Miami in the Greenville 2 regional final on Sunday. It’s a team that added nine new pieces in the offseason, including transfers who had “some history behind them,” in Mulkey’s words, with multiple schools on their resumes. One that, yes, tore through a nonconference schedule, but did it against teams ranked toward the bottom of NET. A program that embraced being the underdog because of it. And at the end, was raising the trophy to its sparkly purple-and-gold-clad fans who expected this when Mulkey was hired, but not this soon.
“I think they’re going, ‘What are we doing in year two? Are you kidding me?’” said Mulkey, who opened her weekend in Greenville saying to expect this success in year two of a rebuild was unfair.
But here they are, continuing to feed the monster of early and sudden success. It was an ugly offensive slog of a regional final and even Mulkey told the ESPN broadcast that if she were watching it on TV, she’d turn it off. The teams combined to shoot 30.8% and Miami didn’t hit a single 3-pointer in 15 attempts. LSU’s Kateri Poole brought the fans into a roar when she hit the single one of the game.
Alexis Moore, named to the all-tournament team, was the guiding light with 21 points and Angel Reese added 13 points and 18 rebounds. She made only three baskets, but on every one of her misses she thought of what associate head coach Bob Starkey did before the game.
Starkey interrupted Mulkey in the pregame meeting and put a thick marker line on everyone’s finger. He told the players on every missed shot, missed backdoor cut, missed layup or any mistake, to look at the finger and “know next play this is what you’re built for, and this is what we want,” Reese said.
“We pointed at that every single time we messed up, did something wrong, or even just the good things,” said Reese, who was named Most Outstanding Player of the region tournament.
With minutes to go, and the game in hand, Reese began pointing adamantly at it during Miami free throws and during a Hurricanes inbounder she guarded. She did it again when she fouled out, and players marked it in during the huddle as they waited for time to expire and confetti to throw.
Sa'Myah Smith drew a ring on Angel Reese's finger as LSU was moments away from advancing to the Final Four 👀 pic.twitter.com/uLqOliQ344
— Just Women’s Sports (@justwsports) March 27, 2023
The connection between them all might never have happened. Mulkey returned to her home state of Louisiana in 2021 to coach an LSU program that won nine games and that offseason brought in transfer Morris, whose long road of a collegiate career started with Mulkey at Baylor. In April 2022, she called Starkey, the legendary LSU coach who led both the men’s and women’s teams and coached legends Sylvia Fowles, Seimone Augustus and Shaquille O’Neal. Around the same time, she was even more active in the transfer portal and added the top one in Reese, as well as LaDazhia Williams and Poole to be starters.
Transferring used to be a dirty word in the college landscape, unless a player was a graduate student looking to add another year. That players can immediately suit up for their new school is still rather new, and the stigma is slow to go. LSU started the season as a question more than a Final Four favorite.
“These two kids have some history behind them,” Mulkey said, “and I remember when I took those transfers, a lot of my coaching friends said, ‘Man, you got a locker room full of personalities. How are you going to handle that?’ And I said, ‘Do you know me very well? Bring them on.’”
Mulkey said they needed tough love and to be held accountable. Their seasons, which include National Player of the Year consideration for Reese, have been “remarkable.” Much like LSU’s collectively. And unexpectedly. LSU earned its spot in the Final Four with its own play, though it certainly had some favors in a season of upsets by facing No. 9 Miami instead of No. 1 Indiana. No. 2 Utah was free throws away from advancing over LSU in the semifinal.
That’s the chaos of March. Much like the transfer portal, it giveth and taketh. For LSU, it gave.
Before taking the dais and speaking to the media, Reese stopped at the large bracket hanging in the hall of the arena. She slapped the open spot in the Final Four where LSU’s nameplate should go and insisted it be filled in.
Near that same spot a half-hour later, a barefoot Mulkey, her white pants rolled up and loud blazer still sparkling, stopped to talk with LSU friends asking about her son, Kramer Robertson, making it in time from St. Louis Cardinals training camp. A few minutes in, she interrupted herself.
“Y’all, what are we doing? Let’s go home,” she said, leading the group down the hallway to an LSU locker room that yelled in more celebrations upon her return. Mulkey will be returning to her former home of Texas, where she coached at Baylor for 21 years and still has a house in Waco. Her grandchildren also still live there.
She won three national championships at that program and fully intends to add to her personal resume. LSU, which has never played in a national championship game, will make its sixth Final Four appearance when it lands in Dallas to play either Virginia Tech or Ohio State. All of the players will make their first semifinal appearance.
“What really makes me smile is not cutting that net down, it’s looking around out there at all those LSU people, looking at that team I get to coach experience it for the first time,” Mulkey said. “That’s what it means to me is to do things that you’re not supposed to do as quickly as you’re supposed to do them.”
It may not have been in the plan, but there’s no longer space to be kidding. LSU is in a position to cut down more nets for the first time and fill in the marker with a real ring. Nothing like Mulkey envisioned.