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'Underdog' LSU focused on Sweet 16, not Kim Mulkey distractions

ALBANY, N.Y. — Kim Mulkey laid the groundwork for her reigning champion LSU Tigers as the tournament’s underdog story.

“Look, [UCLA is] supposed to win the game,” Mulkey said at MVP Arena on Friday ahead of a Sweet 16 meeting in the Albany 2 regional. “They're the 2 seed, we're the 3 seed. But we're not going to go away. We're going to fight hard.”

Hailey Van Lith, one of LSU’s two superstar transfers, built on it.

“We’re choosing to focus on how a lot of people think they can knock us off because that gives us the underdog edge, and we perform better with the underdog edge,” Van Lith told reporters in the locker room after their first practice in Albany. “That’s just the makeup of our team and that’s how we respond.”

LSU entered the season as a heavy favorite to go back-to-back, which would be the first time since the Connecticut teams won four consecutive titles from 2013-2016. Only three programs (UConn, Tennessee, USC) have won back-to-back titles since the first NCAA DI women’s championship in 1982.

“We’re playing the mind game with ourselves a little bit that everybody wants us to be knocked off,” Van Lith said. “Everybody thinks they can beat us. Everybody doesn’t think we’re going to win. So that’s what we’re choosing to put our energy into because ultimately that’s going to motivate us to get the best result.”

LSU coach Kim Mulkey looks on during a game against Middle Tennessee on March 24. (Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports)
LSU coach Kim Mulkey looks on during a game against Middle Tennessee on March 24. (Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports) (USA TODAY Sports via Reuters Connect / Reuters)

The repeat path has been a rocky roller coaster ride since the start. The Tigers, who reloaded ahead of Mulkey’s third season by pulling Van Lith (Louisville) and Aneesah Morrow (DePaul) out of the transfer portal, lost the season opener to Colorado. The Buffaloes are the No. 5 seed in the Albany 2 region and play No. 1 Iowa in the other regional semifinal on Saturday. The winners of those games will face each other with a spot in the Final Four on the line.

There was a four-game stretch in which Angel Reese, the 2023 Most Outstanding Player, was not with the team for undisclosed reasons. Highly talented players had to learn how to play with each other. The SEC served them their first back-to-back losses since the 2021-22 season. Every small moment was, and continues to be, magnified.

Mulkey maxed out the magnifying glass last week when she opened her media availability with a nearly four-minute rebuke of a rumored article from the Washington Post about her. There are no details on what is in the article or what it might regard.

“I did make a statement, and that's all I'll comment on at this time because all I am focused on is to try and win another basketball game,” Mulkey said on Friday. “I’m only here today to talk about the next game.”

Players said during the first weekend and again ahead of the Sweet 16 that the potential story, which has drawn high interest from sports fans and non-sports fans alike, is not a distraction for the team.

“This isn’t the worst thing that’s happened to us this season,” Reese said. “If you’ve been keeping up, you know way more things have come our way. Add another thing to the book. Add another thing to the list. So we’re not distracted. We’re still focused on the main goal and that’s one thing at a time.”

LSU coach Kim Mulkey yells after a foul call during the NCAA tournament. (Andy Hancock/NCAA Photos/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)
LSU coach Kim Mulkey yells after a foul call during the NCAA tournament. (Andy Hancock/NCAA Photos/NCAA Photos via Getty Images) (Andy Hancock/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

Van Lith said it’s not something the team wants “to give attention to right now.”

“Coach Mulkey is our coach and she’s here to coach us to win another national championship and that’s what we’re focused on,” she said. “This program, we care about each other. But at the end of the day, Coach Mulkey wants us to focus on this [game]. So that’s what we’re focused on.”

The outside noise around LSU is loud. There’s always something chatter about LSU, and that included last week when Van Lith started the second half against Middle Tennessee on the bench. The broadcast reported she was emotional and she later subbed back in during the win.

Van Lith, who reached the Final Four with Louisville in 2022, said a lot of players on the team, including herself and Reese, experienced fans playing both sides with them by reacting in negative or positive extremes. It ignites the underdog mentality on which they thrive, she said.

She’s also pulling inspiration from another championship source.

“I just watched [Michael] Jordan’s ‘The Last Dance’ again when he would, like, make stuff up in his head,” Van Lith said with a laugh. “That’s like what we’re doing this year, we just make stuff up.”