NCAA tournament: Angel Reese, Cavinder twins highlight success of transfer portal in Elite Eight run

GREENVILLE, S.C. — Miami head coach Katie Meier smiled and gave a brief, humble head nod as she passed through press row to a roar of cheering Hurricanes fans who made the trip. Entering into the program’s first Elite Eight, she had scouting to do to keep the Cinderella run going for her No. 9 seed.

The scout turned out to be LSU. Two hours later, Tigers head coach Kim Mulkey flocked to her own fans dressed in sequins and leopard prints — à la her own out-loud courtside fits — as they kept their own party from shutting down. The rise to the program’s first Elite Eight since 2008 came earlier than expected in Mulkey’s takeover.

The Greenville 2 regional will be a battle of two teams lifted rather unexpectedly into the country’s final eight by key transfers. It’s a sign of the times that isn’t going away, as coaches at each regional site have reiterated again this March. And it has a direct impact on the upsets and parity around every conference.

“To do it again as quickly as we’ve done it is ridiculous, really,” Mulkey said after her No. 3-seeded Tigers outlasted No. 2 seed Utah, 66-63. “It’s not my great coaching that got us there. Honestly, it’s the transfer portal. The transfer portal affects everything in basketball now.”

Mulkey added top-ranked transfer Angel Reese, who has been everything LSU could ever want. The former Maryland star officially set the SEC double-double record with her 31st of the season, tallying 17 points and 12 rebounds.

“We always play the underdog role, so just going into this game and just proving everybody wrong, we knew what we had,” said Reese, whose 23.5 points per game rank fifth and 15.6 rebounds rank second in the country.

LSU's Angel Reese celebrates after the Lady Tigers beat Utah in the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA women's tournament at Bon Secours Wellness Arena in Greenville, South Carolina, on March 24, 2023. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
LSU's Angel Reese celebrates after the Tigers beat Utah in the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA women's tournament at Bon Secours Wellness Arena in Greenville, South Carolina, on March 24, 2023. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

She’s one of four starting transfers for the Tigers, who are rounded out by freshman Flau’jae Johnson.

“I knew we had the chance to make it [to the Elite Eight],” Kateri Poole, who played two years at Ohio State, told Yahoo Sports. “But I think that it didn’t really click until we faced adversity and we realized, it’s us. It’s not any other team that can beat us. It’s us, ourselves.”

LSU faced criticism for its weak nonconference schedule that Mulkey said early in the season was because she didn’t know she’d have star transfers suiting up. She went at that again on Friday night, asking if anyone knew that piece of information on the women’s selection committee that seeded them third and not No. 1 or 2.

“Well, they’d better start thinking like that now, because a lot of teams that had all the pieces got hurt from the portal. They lost starters,” Mulkey said. “And they went and overscheduled. Darned if you do, darned if you don’t. Don’t penalize teams.”

Alexis Morris started her career with Mulkey at Baylor in 2017-18 before a season at Rutgers, one at Texas A&M and then rejoined Mulkey at LSU ahead of the 2021-22 season. Morris had 15 points, including the final four free throws of the night, and seven assists. LaDazhia Williams, a graduate student who spent two years at South Carolina and most recently two at Missouri, led LSU with 24 points on an 11-of-14 day.

“I knew playing for a Hall of Fame coach, we were going to get something done,” Williams said. “We work hard every day in practice, and we listen to what she’s got to say, and we put in the work. I’m not really too surprised. This is year two, and we’re making a statement. We just want to keep making statements.”

Meier brought in arguably the most popular transfers in Haley and Hanna Cavinder, twins from Fresno State known to most — including people in the tunnel after their 70-65 upset of No. 4 Villanova — as TikTok stars and media personalities. When Miami made the announcement last offseason, it was criticized as a popularity move for name, image, likeness reasons. The sisters’ impact in a Power Five conference like the ACC was questioned.

Miami's Haley Cavinder and Hanna Cavinder before the Sweet 16 round of the 2023 NCAA women's tournament held at Bon Secours Wellness Arena in Greenville, South Carolina, on March 24, 2023. (Jacob Kupferman/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

They’re dancing now — and video-chatting with Lil Wayne in the celebratory locker room. Haley Cavinder started all 34 games for Miami, averaging a team-best 12.5 points and 87.8 free throw percentage. She scored seven points with three assists in the win, heeding way to Jasmyne Roberts’ career day. The sophomore scored 26 points (10-of-16) with nine rebounds and four steals in what otherwise was a team effort to upend National Player of the Year contender Maddy Siegrist (31 points, 13 rebounds).

“Who wouldn’t want this?” Haley Cavinder, who had never played in the NCAA tournament, told Yahoo Sports. “As a young basketball player growing up, this is the moment you want to do. Being able to get to my first Dance, in this moment with this team, Elite Eight, you can’t beat that feeling.”

Hanna Cavinder comes off the bench for key minutes, prompting those Miami fans to yell “go twin” any time a Cavinder touches the ball. Miami was barely over .500 in a competitive ACC and lost in the tournament’s semifinals. The Hurricanes have hovered around that point for much of the last decade, reaching nine of the last 12 tournaments heading into this one, but losing in the first or second rounds.

Meier has been at Miami since 2005-06 and after the win, went over to embrace her mother, Phyllis, in the Hurricanes’ section. Phyllis and Hunter Reno, Meier’s wife, sat in the media room as Meier soaked in the moment before going back out to scout. Meier didn’t call her team’s upset of No. 1 Indiana the biggest win of her career, and she won’t do it now.

“Because ‘est,’ it's kind of final, ‘est,’” Meier said.

Mulkey probably wouldn’t want to either. The three-time national champion at Baylor walked to her media responsibilities in her viral pink, flamingo-feather-sleeved jacket, grasping Reese and Williams on either side of her. She’ll celebrate, because it’s LSU’s first time past the second round since 2015, but she still views her group as building and overachieving. The day prior, she questioned if the quick rise “might be feeding that monster too quickly.”

“But it sure beats the heck out of losing,” she added.

Poole knew the chance to bring LSU this far was there when she learned Reese was transferring. Sitting in the locker room and actually feeling it, there was no time to waste ahead of the regional final on Sunday.

Miami, LSU and any other program in the country could look very different next season as players continue to enter their names into the transfer portal and coaches recruit veterans while still coaching to the natty.

“I know we can take it all the way and that’s what we’re going for,” Poole told Yahoo Sports. “So job’s not done.”