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LSU’s repeat bid ends with Elite Eight loss to Iowa


ALBANY, N.Y. — Flau’jae Johnson bends over and stretches her legs as the crowd roars its approval of more Iowa free throws. She stands up with a deep breath as reality sets in that the LSU Tigers‘ hopes for a repeat national championship are over. The clock indicates 14.2 seconds remain in Monday’s regional final, but LSU is down by 10 points, and star forward Angel Reese is on the bench after fouling out with 1:45 to go.

Johnson grabs the rebound after an Iowa miss, runs down court and hits a 3-pointer to cut the deficit to seven points. But it’s over. As the clock hits zero, she walks off the court, lifts the bottom of her jersey to her lips and bites down on it as she stands in the front of the handshake line. In her periphery, the Hawkeyes celebrate, bathing in the glory of a return to the Final Four, of avenging their title game loss to LSU last season in the NCAA tournament.

Johnson, who puts up a team-high 23 points, gets to the end of the line. The guard pauses, gazing out into the crowd with an unreadable look on her face. She turns away and heads off the court, back down the tunnel with the rest of her team.

LSU fell to Iowa 94-87 in the Elite Eight. Reese appeared to twist her ankle early in the second quarter. The Tigers shot 38.6% from the floor and just 8-of-24 from beyond the arc. The crowd in Albany was tilted against them. And, ultimately, the Tigers had absolutely no answer for Caitlin Clark, who tallied 41 points, 12 assists and 7 rebounds.

“It kind of felt like we were losing all game,” Tigers guard Hailey Van Lith says. “From the start, we didn’t do what we needed to do.”

The loss put a cap on a season full of adversity. Make that a year. Before the Tigers even walked off the court following their 2023 championship win over Iowa, they were criticized for their raucous celebration. On social media, Reese was called “classless” and an “idiot” for gestures she made toward Clark.

Things didn’t get any easier when the new season began. The Tigers lost their season opener. November was marked by a four-game absence by Reese and a season-ending injury to sophomore Sa’Myah Smith. Kateri Poole left the team. That gave way to conference losses, including in the SEC championship game to South Carolina. All the while, LSU was cast as a polarizing champion on social media and sometimes in traditional media, as well.

“So many things happened this year, so many things hit us, and we never folded,” Reese says during Monday’s postgame news conference. “We came up short, but we have to keep our heads high.”

THE ROAD WAS ROCKY from the start. In this season’s first game, the defending champs and preseason No. 1 were stunned by No. 20 Colorado 92-78. LSU coach Kim Mulkey, who had landed two high-profile transfers in Van Lith and Aneesah Morrow, questioned her team’s leadership immediately after the loss. In the fourth game, Reese didn’t rejoin LSU after halftime. She wasn’t with the team for the next game or the one after that. And then when the Tigers boarded a plane heading for Grand Cayman to play in the Cayman Islands Classic over the Thanksgiving holiday, Reese didn’t go with them. Neither did Poole.

The attention came like a frenetic whirlwind. Where was Angel Reese? When would she play? Why did she not go to the Cayman Islands?

“Angel is part of this basketball team,” Mulkey said after Reese’s first missed game. “We hope to see her sooner than later.”

With few details and no answers, speculation ran rampant on social media. It was quieter on Grand Cayman, but the beachy paradise wasn’t entirely an escape. Smith, a starter, went down awkwardly against Niagara, grabbing her right knee as she laid on the hardwood of the high school gym. Though the full scope of her injury wouldn’t be known until later, she had suffered a season-ending knee injury.

Reese returned against Virginia Tech, LSU’s first foe after returning from Grand Cayman. Poole never came back. A reason for Poole’s departure was never provided by LSU or Poole, but Poole reportedly entered the transfer portal on March 13. Reese said she had stepped away to focus on her mental health.

A 5-0 December turned into a difficult January, which included conference losses to Auburn (a surprise), South Carolina (not a surprise) and Mississippi State (another surprise). LSU didn’t lose in February, dominating the back half of the SEC regular season.

And then there was March.

LSU opened the month by continuing to win and marched into the league championship game determined to give undefeated South Carolina a serious challenge. Late in the fourth quarter, Johnson fouled South Carolina guard MiLaysia Fulwiley after Fulwiley picked Johnson’s pocket. As players walked off the court, Johnson bumped Ashlyn Watkins. Then Gamecocks center Kamilla Cardoso rushed toward Johnson and shoved her to the floor. Players from both benches swarmed onto the court, leading to mass ejections and a suspension for Cardoso. South Carolina won 79-72 to collect the SEC tournament trophy.

Following the game, Mulkey ignited controversy with her comments suggesting Cardoso should have picked on someone her own size. “I wish she would’ve pushed Angel Reese,” Mulkey said. “If you’re 6-8, don’t push somebody that little.”

The drama did not subside once the NCAA tournament started. Speculation that The Washington Post was going to publish an article about Mulkey surfaced on social media. In response, Mulkey began a March 23 news conference ahead of LSU’s second-round matchup with Middle Tennessee State by threatening to sue the newspaper if it published a “false story” about her.

The Post story published on Friday, and Mulkey said that she hadn’t read it and didn’t substantively comment further. But another newspaper — the Los Angeles Times — caught her ire after it published a column contrasting LSU and UCLA before their Sweet 16 game on Saturday. The original story used “dirty debutants” to describe LSU and compared its game with UCLA to good vs. evil.

Van Lith described the Times article as racist. “I know for a fact that people see us differently because we do have a lot of Black women on our team who have an attitude and like to talk trash and people feel a way about it,” she said. “At the end of the day, I’m rocking with them because they don’t let that change who they are. They stay true to themselves, and so I’ll have their back.”

SITTING AT THE DAIS for Monday’s postgame news conference, Reese is flanked by Johnson on her right and Van Lith on her left. Johnson dips her head low. Van Lith looks ahead, eyes wide open and glassy.

Reese acknowledges that she twisted her ankle in the second quarter. Following the injury, she shot just 2-of-14 from the field. But she says she won’t use that as an excuse. Reese declines to say whether she will go to the WNBA or use her fifth year of eligibility to play one more year of college ball. Whether or not this is the end of Reese’s college career, this moment marks an end.

An end to a year of upheaval and change. An end to the roller-coaster ride of the season. An end to LSU’s reign.

When Johnson is asked about Reese, she sits up tall and speaks right into the mic. “Everybody can have their opinion on Angel Reese, but y’all don’t know her,” Johnson says. “I know the real Angel Reese, and the person I see every day is a strong person, is a caring, loving person. But the crown she wears is heavy.”

As she talks, Angel starts to break down.

After Johnson finishes, Van Lith leans forward to say she would like to share, as well, though she isn’t directly asked. “I think Angel is one of the toughest people I’ve been around,” Van Lith says. “People speak hate into her life. I’ve never seen people wish bad things on someone as much as her, and it does not affect her. She comes to practice every day. She lives her life every day. She lives how she wants to live, and she don’t let nobody change that.”

Reese rocks back and forth, tears spilling from her eyes as Van Lith and Johnson speak about her so passionately. Johnson reaches over and wipes a tear from Reese’s cheek.

Minutes later, the LSU locker room is quiet. Players sit in front of their lockers, many looking down at the floor, silent unless answering questions from the smattering of media in the room. Only a day prior, the locker room was so full, it was hard to move. Now, there are just a handful of reporters moving through the room while a couple of cameras are pointed at Reese. Everyone else is focused on the Hawkeyes, the winners.

“This team, we get knocked down and we stand up every time,” Van Lith says. “We were standing up, but at the end of the day, we just didn’t play well enough. That s— happens. It’s part of sports.”

Johnson sits looking up at those asking her questions. She is demonstrative as ever, a smile even creeping across her lips at one point. Her mantra is that she has to be better. More consistent.

“I’m going to be really intentional about that next year,” she says.

The time for talking about this year is over.

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