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Mulkey, LSU to Final Four in Year 2: 'Unheard of'

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Published in Breaking News
Sunday, 26 March 2023 22:00

GREENVILLE, S.C. -- LSU coach Kim Mulkey walked off the court barefoot, pieces of confetti sticking to her heel.

Her security guard held her silver high-heeled shoes for her, and for just a moment, Mulkey turned back to wave to the smattering of LSU fans who stayed behind to watch players cut down the nets -- a triumph not many thought possible this season.

Mulkey herself said two days ago she had no playbook for how to take a team to the Final Four only two years into a job. But after a 54-42 win over Miami on Sunday in the Elite Eight, she clearly had become the one to write it.

"It will hit me tonight when we're on that plane going back to Baton Rouge, and I'm sitting with my feet propped up tomorrow eating crawfish and go, 'I've got to go back again,'" Mulkey said. "I didn't put parameters on the team. I didn't say anything except at the press conferences. I want to put a championship banner up there some day."

Someday could be a week from today, though LSU will no doubt be an underdog once again. Mulkey has been there, done that. She is now the third coach to reach the Final Four with multiple schools, joining C. Vivian Stringer (Cheyney, Iowa and Rutgers) and Gary Blair (Arkansas and Texas A&M). Before coming to LSU, she went to the Final Four with Baylor four times, winning three national championships.

It is why when she was hired two years ago, players such as senior Emily Ward "fan girled" over the news. Ward, a bench player, is from Louisiana, grew up watching LSU basketball and was recruited to play by former coach Nikki Fargas, who resigned in 2021.

"We were just so shocked that Coach Mulkey left Baylor," Ward said. "But we're just so thankful that she was able to bring the program where it is right now in just two years. I mean, that's unheard of. That's unbelievable."

That was exactly the point Mulkey was trying to make when she said she had no playbook for making it this far this fast. But assistant coach Daphne Mitchell explained it this way: "This was not the plan. We came in and she said we have to be patient. We're rebuilding a program. But she's a Hall of Famer and she's a winner, and this doesn't surprise me. But it does. But it doesn't at the same time."

Mulkey winning and going to the Final Four is not a surprise considering her career. But doing it with nine new players this year, well, yes, that is a bit of a surprise.

"We never put a year on it," Mitchell said. "Everyone else did: 'Oh, she'll have it in three.' We were like, 'Are you crazy?' There's a lot to do into it. For her to make it look 'easy' is a testament to how she's a proven winner and able to prove everyone in -- staff, players, fans, everyone. It's just in her."

LSU is now in the Final Four for the first time since 2008, but it was not exactly the prettiest game. Neither team shot the ball particularly well -- Miami shot 32 percent; LSU shot 30 percent. The teams combined to shoot 1-of-27 from 3 and 6-of-62 (9.7 percent) outside the paint, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

All-American Angel Reese went 3-for-15 but still had a double-double with 13 points and 14 rebounds, while Alexis Morris scored 21 points to lead all LSU scorers.

"I just think we needed to just relax and calm down and just let the game come to us," Morris said. "We wanted to win so bad. We've dreamed about cutting the nets, and I think at first we were just anxious, everybody just wanted to win. We didn't shoot the ball well. We haven't been shooting the ball well in our last two games, but only thing we can control is our defense and our effort. And that's what we did tonight and we let that dictate our game."

Indeed, that defense flustered Miami's players, who were off all night. The Hurricanes' top two scorers, Destiny Harden and Haley Cavinder, went a combined 1-of-15 for seven points.

In the postgame news conference, Reese described something LSU assistant Bob Starkey did, that in hindsight seemed to prove prophetic.

"He told us that every missed shot, every back door, if you missed a layup, anything, look at that finger and know next play this is what you're built for, and this is what we want," Reese said. "So he wrote that on everybody's finger, and we pointed at that every single time we messed up, did something wrong, or even just the good things. So we were just super happy and super excited and had a lot of fun."

They looked at those fingers plenty, but they also looked within themselves to find just enough to make it to Dallas. Now Mulkey will return to the state where she built her Hall of Fame coaching career, a place where she still has a home and countless friends.

But the truth is she is home at LSU, coaching the flagship university in her home state, where her mom lives 40 minutes away and she can deliver an experience, and an opportunity, they have all desperately wanted for so long.

"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."

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