BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Hall of Fame coach Kim Mulkey needed only one season at LSU to bring women’s NCAA Tournament games back to Baton Rouge for the first time since 2014.
As accomplished as Mulkey is, even she didn’t envision that happening when the lure of returning to her native Louisiana led her leave the powerhouse she built at Baylor for a team that won just nine games last season.
“I don’t think any of us sitting in this room ever saw this day coming,” Mulkey said Friday as LSU (25-5), the No. 3 seed in the tournament’s Spokane Region, prepared to host 14th-seed Jackson State (23-6) in a first-round game on Saturday. “It’s just a storybook season as far as I’m concerned.”
LSU built up a considerable women’s basketball fan base between 1999 and 2014, when it hosted games in eight NCAA Tournaments. The Tigers have been to three tournaments since — 2015, 2017 and 2018 — losing in the first round each time.
Expectations are rising again.
By Friday, more than 7,000 tickets had sold for the two first-round games in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center. Before the Tigers take the court, No. 6 seed Ohio State (23-6) plays 11th-seeded Missouri State (25-7).
“People here know what it feels like to have great women’s basketball. They’ve seen this PMAC full. They’ve been to Final Fours,” Mulkey said. “To do it this quickly with this team, in this first year, with this staff, it just — it reiterated that I made the right decision to come back (to Louisiana), because people are just kind of excited, kind of happy. And it makes me happy.”
A year ago, Mulkey was in the midst of a dominant, 21-year run at Baylor that included a 40-0 national title campaign in 2012.
“My tenure at Baylor was unbelievable,” Mulkey said. “I can tell you I never saw myself leaving. But as we all learn in life, you’ve got to expect the unexpected sometimes.”
Mulkey coached against Jackson State in the first round of the 2021 NCAA Tournament. Baylor won 101-52, but Mulkey stressed that no team on a 21-game winning streak, as Jackson State is right now, should be overlooked.
“They’re very well coached. They’re very confident,” she said. “They’re very talented.”
Jackson State coach Tomekia Reed expects her team to be more poised than last year against Baylor.
“Right now they are extremely comfortable. They are prepared,” Reed said. “Going 21 wins in a row, I think that lights a fire under them as well to keep it rolling.”
Mulkey said the Tigers will have to prepare for Jackson State 6-foot-4 center Ameshya Williams-Holliday, who averages 19.4 points and 11.3 rebounds, as they would for any prominent post player in the Southeastern Conference.
“But she’s not all they have,” Mulkey added, singling out guard Dayzsha Rogan, who averages 13.3 points. Jackson State has averaged 79.6 points per game.
The Tigers’ leader is Khayla Pointer, a fifth-year player and AP second-team All American who averaging 19.0 points, 6.5 rebounds and 5.2 assists this season.
Alexis Morris, a transfer who averaged 15.8 points per game, has missed most of the past three games with a left knee sprain, but practiced Thursday and Friday.
Ohio State is making its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2018 and meets a Missouri State team that had to beat Florida State in a play-in game on Thursday night.
“They definitely deserve to be here,” Ohio State guard Taylor Mikesell said of Missouri State. “They run really fast in transition. They rebound the ball well, and they just play hard together. … It’s going to be a really good test for us.”
The matchup pits a pair of top 10 scorers in the Big Ten this season — Mikesell (18.8 points per game) and fellow Buckeye Jacy Sheldon (19.5 ppg) — against a team that ranked 10th nationally in scoring defense, allowing 53.7 points per game.
“They are very, very good defensively, and you can tell that they kind of hang their hat on their preparation and effort on that end,” Ohio State coach Kevin McGuff said of Missouri State. “They have a lot of older players who are used to winning, and they have been very successful over the years and they’re very poised.”
Missouri State has been to the regional rounds of the previous two NCAA Tournaments, so they expect to hold their own against power conference teams.
“We feel like we’re in rhythm now,” Missouri State coach Amaka Agugua-Hamilton said, adding that her team’s first-four triumph should serve them well against an Ohio State team that hasn’t played since March 5. “The jitters are out. There’s not going to be any nervous or anxious energy. It’s going to be, what’s the game plan, let’s go in there, have some fun, implement it, play together.”
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