At its most basic, the outcome was the same. LSU was too much for Virginia Tech and won on its home court in the final game of the inaugural ACC/SEC Challenge on Thursday. But the 82-64 final score was a far throw from the Tigers’ seven-point win in Dallas last March as each team works through early readjustments to their rosters.
For LSU, it’s building chemistry with its roster of stars. For Virginia Tech, it’s finding young help for its two returning performers.
The contest was the first one back for Final Four Most Outstanding Player Angel Reese, who missed the last four games for undisclosed reasons. The story drew eyes from around the sports world after she was benched in the second half of the team’s fourth game of the season and neither head coach Kim Mulkey nor Reese explained the absence.
“Having Angel back is a shot in the arm,” Mulkey said.
Reese said she was happy to be back after a long week and half away from the team and she spent it taking time for herself, “resetting and refocusing within the team.”
“I want people to realize that I’m not just an athlete,” Reese said when asked what she learned about herself in the time away. “I’m a human. I go through things. We all go through things. And just being able to have so many people that were super supportive to me in this past week and a half really showed me a lot and who really cares for me. When you up, everybody loves you. When you’re down, you see who really love you.”
LSU proved over that time it can win without her, though Thursday night’s top-10 victory showcased what the Tigers can do with their almost full cast of stars. The matchup is one of only two against teams ranked top-50 in NET last season. The Tigers lost to Colorado on opening night. Thursday's win was also Mulkey’s 700th in her 813th career game as a head coach. She is the fastest to the mark in Division I women’s or men’s collegiate history.
Angel Reese returns to court
Reese fell slightly short of a double-double in her return with 19 points and nine rebounds. She was 5-of-10 overall and 9-of-16 from the free-throw line, which LSU had more success getting to for a 17-of-26 clip. The 6-foot-3 junior forward settled in, but looked gassed at one point early and committed four turnovers. It was a season high.
She had six points at the half and quickly put back an offensive rebound that put LSU up, 37-29. The Tigers continued to cruise.
Reese had not played since Nov. 14 when she was benched in the second half of a two-point game against Kent State. Mulkey said it was a “coach’s decision” and Reese did not travel with the team for its next game. She was away from the team for four games in total before Mulkey announced Wednesday the star would be back for the top-10 tilt against Virginia Tech.
The ESPN broadcast said Reese had been practicing with the team. Mulkey previously had not answered a reporter’s question on if Reese was practicing. Kateri Poole, a starter in LSU’s run to the 2023 title, remains away from the team. Poole hasn’t played since Nov. 17.
Even on a relatively quiet night, Reese draws defensive attention that opens up teammates for open shots and cuts to the basket. Four players were in double digits.
LSU is a Final Four contender
When the Tigers are complete, everyone is available and all are playing at their best, they’re a surefire early Final Four contender. There are so many weapons that defenses have to pick their poison and it showed, even considering the unimpressive showing by Virginia Tech.
Freshman guard Mikaylah Williams hit three triples in a two-minute stretch early in the third quarter that kept the lead at double digits even as Virginia Tech guard Georgia Amoore found her way to the basket on three consecutive drives. It was Williams who got hot in the third quarter of the Kent State game to lead LSU with 42 points in a 109-79 win. She had a team-high 20 for LSU against Virginia Tech with six rebounds and five assists.
Aneesah Morrow is the Tigers’ engine with or without Reese available. She had 19 points and 15 rebounds for her fourth double-double of the season. She’s playing fewer minutes on average for LSU than her two seasons at DePaul, but is still averaging around the same points per 40 minutes (26.6 to 29).
Her defense was more important in suffocating the Hokies in the second and third quarters. She had two blocks and a team-high three steals, as well as key deflections and collapsing onto Virginia Tech post Elizabeth Kitley.
Either Morrow or Williams has led the team in scoring in five of nine games. Sophomore guard Flau’jae Johnson led in two others and sophomore Sa’Myah Smith led in another. Smith, who started the season as a bright spot for LSU, is out for the season after suffering a torn ACL, MCL and meniscus.
Because of Reese’s absence, the group hasn’t had much time to build on-court game chemistry together. Their ceiling is high.
Is Virginia Tech still the ACC favorite?
Virginia Tech won its first ACC tournament title last spring and represented the conference in the Final Four. But a month into the season, the Hokies haven’t lived up to their hype, which includes being preseason favorites to win the conference.
There are a lot of new pieces to fit in and it will take time for the Hokies to build help around their three returners. Amoore, Kitley and Cayla King are the only players from that Final Four team and there are six freshmen on the squad.
Amoore scored a game-high 25 points, but was 1-of-9 from 3-point range. Mulkey credited Hailey Van Lith’s defense on the point guard. The lack of help around her was clear, especially as Kitley struggled with her shot.
The 2023 Naismith finalist scored 16 points (eight below her season average) shooting 37% compared to 59.2% heading into the game. She clunked many attempts short and had 11 rebounds while no one else had more than six.
Matilda Ekh, a transfer from Michigan State, scored 11 on 40% shooting. No other player had more than five points. Freshman Clara Strack fouled out in five minutes of play before halftime. And the team collectively was 19% from 3, its third game in the last four going 25% or worse from beyond the arc.
It’s likely Virginia Tech loses positioning in the AP poll next week, and the Hokies don’t have another game on the schedule before it comes out on Monday. They play LIU on Wednesday. But like LSU, the Hokies will be a more complete team come March.
In their stead, No. 5 NC State is taking over the ACC conversation behind Saniya Rivers and Notre Dame has looked good despite injuries to its guards. When healthy, which could come later this season, the Fighting Irish have one of the best backcourts in the nation.
The ACC/SEC Challenge ended in a 7-7 tie.