GREENVILLE, S.C. (AP) — So much for Kim Mulkey’s timelines and cautioning against expecting too much, too soon at LSU.
Two years in, and Mulkey’s return to lead her home-state program already includes another Final Four trip — and dreams of more.
Angel Reese had 18 rebounds and LSU returned to the women’s Final Four for the first time in 15 years by beating Miami 54-42 on Sunday night, carrying a rapid rise under Mulkey straight to the sport’s biggest stage.
Alexis Morris scored 21 points and Reese added 13 for the third-seeded Tigers (32-2), who asserted control of a grinding, defense-first game. LSU’s length caused Miami problems even with Reese — an Associated Press first-team All-American — having a brutal shooting day, and the Tigers offset their offensive hiccups by dominating the glass.
Not bad for a group that began with nine new players, with Morris as the lone returning starter.
“Coach Mulkey, she’s had a plan for us, since Day One,” Morris said, pausing from munching on chicken wings in the locker room. “This year, she had 12 players who just bought in, bought into the system. What you’re witnessing right now is the result of a team commitment.
“We all made a commitment and we all just want one thing, and that’s just to win.”
The reward came at the horn, with Mulkey turning to her bench and leaning forward to put her hands on her knees as though in disbelief. Players ran to midcourt to celebrate, except for Morris running straight to the scorer’s table and jumping on top of it in a moment she said she had long dreamed of.
As players posed for cellphone photos with the regional-title trophy, the 60-year-old Mulkey looked eager to take it all in after players dumped a cooler of confetti on her. She danced briefly with Reese. She watched her grandchildren roll around in the confetti laying at midcourt. She took a moment to acknowledge LSU fans in the stands by gazing their way while patting her heart.
Mulkey arrived at LSU with a resume headlined by three NCAA titles from her time at Baylor along with some flamboyant sideline looks such as her silver-shimmering jacket with white pants for this one. She had cautioned that the Tigers were overachieving when they’re still strengthening a program for the long haul.
Maybe so, but they’re ahead of schedule after pushing their way through the NCAA Tournament’s Greenville 2 Region. The Tigers head to Dallas to face Ohio State or Virginia Tech in Friday’s national semifinals.
“What really makes me smile is not cutting that net down,” Mulkey said. “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.”
Reese, a Maryland transfer who has led Mulkey’s team all year with her physical play, was named the region’s most outstanding player despite missing her first nine shots and going 3 for 15 for the game.
LSU shot 30.2% and went 1 for 12 from 3-point range, including misses on its first nine attempts. But Miami was even worse from 3, missing all 15 tries.
The third-seeded Tigers finished with a 49-35 rebounding edge behind Reese, which led to a 15-3 edge in second-chance points — all desperately needed on a day with offensive rebounds readily available. They also made 15 of 26 free throws while Miami got to the line just nine times.
Jasmyne Roberts scored 22 points for ninth-seeded Miami (22-13), which had taken a wild ride here. The Hurricanes rallied from a huge deficit to beat Oklahoma State in the first round, stunned No. 1 seed Indiana on the road, then beat Villanova in Friday’s Sweet 16 despite blowing a 21-point lead.
The last win set off an emotional on-court celebration for Katie Meier’s bunch, which had played with toughness and athleticism to get to its first Elite Eight. The Hurricanes were trying to match the record for lowest-seeded team ever to reach a Final Four, set by Arkansas in 1998.
But the Hurricanes struggled the entire way offensively, even as their defense kept them hanging around and leaving open opportunities.
Outside of Roberts — coming off a career-best 26 points against Villanova — seemingly no Hurricanes player could make a shot.
“I know we were exhausted because we were pouring our heart and soul into the defensive end and the rebounding effort,” Meier said, adding: “And that’s all the credit to LSU for being so hard to guard inside and for taking our legs out so much.”
The Hurricanes shot 31.6% and plenty of their missed 3-pointers came off clean looks. Destiny Harden, who hit the shot to beat Indiana, scored three points on 0-for-9 shooting with seven missed 3s.
It was a disappointing conclusion to an incredible run for Miami, and the school fell short of making history twice in one day.
The men’s and women’s teams were each playing Sunday to reach the programs’ first Final Four. The men pulled it off, beating Texas in Kansas City, Missouri. That game went final during the first quarter of the women’s game — drawing cheers when the final play was shown on the arena scoreboards.
Miami battled but couldn’t complete the double.
“I mean, it hurts because we competed, we gave it our all,” Harden said. “We took the program somewhere it’s never been.”
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