Tigers into Sweet 16, 'have Coach Mulkey's back'

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BATON ROUGE, La. — LSU coach Kim Mulkey pledged that she wouldn’t let an impending Washington Post “hit piece” about her derail the defending national champion Tigers during the women’s NCAA tournament.

A dominant second-half surge on Sunday, led by star forward Angel Reese and dynamic guard Flau’jae Johnson, proved Mulkey right, at least for now.

Reese’s 20 points and 11 rebounds along with Johnson’s 21 points helped third-seeded LSU pull away for an 83-56 victory over No. 11 seed Middle Tennessee in the second round.

“Listen, man, we’re not going to let one sleazy reporter distract us from what we’re trying to do. Absolutely not,” Mulkey said. “My kids didn’t even know I said that yesterday. That team is not involved in this. They were in shock when they saw all that on the internet.”

Mulkey grabbed headlines on Saturday when she railed against The Washington Post and even threatened legal action. She did not mention the reporter by name, but award-winning Post reporter Kent Babb confirmed to The Associated Press on Saturday he is working on a profile of Mulkey. He declined further comment, and the Post also declined comment.

Reese said Sunday she didn’t know anything about that, but other teammates did.

“Coach Mulkey’s had our back all year, so we’ve got to have Coach Mulkey’s back,” said forward Aneesah Morrow, who scored 19 points. “We’ve got to play hard and for one another — and that’s as simple as it is.”

LSU (30-5) trailed by nine in the third quarter before surging to a comfortable second-half lead and ending the Blue Raiders’ 20-game winning streak.

“I didn’t want to let my team down,” said Reese, who had a long embrace with Mulkey on the sideline when she checked out in the final minutes.

Reese also noted that she might have played her last game on LSU’s home court because she hasn’t decided whether to turn pro after this season.

“So, I did whatever it takes to win,” Reese said. “And me and Coach have that kind of relationship where she can get on me and talk to me, like, ‘I need you,’ and give me that encouragement that I need.”

MTSU (30-5) led 41-32 in the third and looked primed to widen the gap when Reese tripped over a fallen teammate on an attempted layup and crashed to the court, sending the Blue Raiders on a 5-on-4 break the other way.

But Jalynn Gregory’s open 3 bounced off the back rim to LSU guard Last-Tear Poa, who fired the ball downcourt, where Reese had just gotten up for an uncontested layup.

That play spawned a 10-0 run — fueled in part by Mikaylah Williams’ pull-up jumper in transition and subsequent 3-point from the left corner — to put the Tigers back in front 42-41.

“One possession can change everything,” Reese said. “That could have been the possession.”

Later in the quarter, Johnson forced a turnover by tying up MTSU’s Ta’Mia Scott, followed that up with a 3 and later hit a bail-out, fallaway jumper as the shot clock expired.

“Everybody was going to have to suck it up and get down and do whatever it takes,” said Johnson, whose triumphant gesticulations after each big play stirred the packed crowd into a deafening frenzy.

“We just had energy. I mean, I feel like everybody felt that shift,” she continued. “My stomach was bubbling. I said, ‘I ain’t going home.'”

LSU wound up outscoring Middle Tennessee 27-8 during the final 8:22 of the third to take a 59-49 lead on Reese’s layup. The Tigers went up by as many as 30 points after that.

“If they decide to play the rest of the year like they did the second half, they’re going to be tough,” MTSU coach Rick Insell said. “I’ve watched a lot of film on them. That second half was about as good as I’ve seen them play this year.

“If they decide to do that, they’re going to have another chance to hang another flag.”

Blue Raiders 6-foot-6 starting center Anastasiia Boldyreva scored nine points and blocked three shots but fouled out just before the end of third quarter.

Savannah Wheeler, the Conference USA player of the year, scored 21 and Scott put up 15 for Middle Tennessee, which lost for the first time since Dec. 30.

Williams added 16 points for LSU, which jumped out to a 24-15 lead before slipping in the second quarter. The Blue Raiders outrebound the Tigers 25-18 in the first half and led 36-32 at halftime.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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