DALLAS — When Kim Mulkey stunned the women’s college basketball world to take the LSU head-coaching job, there never really seemed to be a question that at some point, she would lead the Tigers to a national championship.
But to do it two years into the job? As an underdog? With her team counted out at every turn? Against player of the year Caitlin Clark? Mulkey concedes that was never really in her plans.
Yet there she stood — and hooted and hollered and stomped her feet and yelled at the refs — in the middle of the national title game Sunday afternoon, her gold-and-black sequined Tigers print pantsuit shimmering under the arena lights, and, well, it obviously became the plan.
In a game that delivered the high drama and jaw-dropping plays that many expected, Mulkey and unsung hero Jasmine Carson led the Tigers past Clark and Iowa 102-85 in the highest-scoring national title game of all time, in front of a raucous, packed crowd that alternated between euphoric and desperate with each momentum swing.
Mulkey is the first women’s college basketball coach to lead two different teams to national championships, and this one by far is the most unexpected, as a No. 3 seed questioned for large swaths of the season for not playing a tough enough nonconference schedule. With one minute left in the game, Mulkey turned to her bench, put her hand to her mouth and tried to hold back her tears. The crowd chanted, “L-S-U!”
“I couldn’t hold it,” Mulkey said. “I got very emotional. That’s really not like me until the buzzer goes off, but I knew we were going to hold on and win this game. I don’t know if it’s the mere fact that we’re doing this in my second year back home. I don’t know if it was the fact that I am home. I don’t know if it was looking across there at my daughter and my grandchildren. I don’t know if it was looking across at LSU. I don’t know what it was, but I lost it.
“So that should tell you what I think about it. Very, very emotional and tears of joy.”
As the final seconds ticked away, Angel Reese pointed at her ring finger and did star wrestler John Cena’s “You can’t see me” hand gesture, waving her hand across her face toward Clark.
Mulkey leaned against the bench and was swarmed by her staff as her players danced all around her.
“She’s the only coach in the world, in America, in the universe that has two national championships at two different schools,” freshman Flau’Jae Johnson said. “That’s legendary. That’s why I came here. This was on my vision board, freshman of the year and a national championship. I can take both of them off. I knew it could happen, I dreamed it could happen, and it happened.”
Iowa entered the title game as the favorite. (How could it not with the way Clark has played during the NCAA tournament?) In the loss, Clark set the record for total points scored in a single men’s or women’s NCAA tournament (191).
Off back-to-back 41-point performances, including an upset over No. 1 South Carolina, Clark finished with 30 points on 9-of-22 shooting.
“I probably could have attacked the rim a little more than I did tonight,” Clark said. “I thought they played really good defense. I thought they had people waiting in the paint for me a little more than South Carolina did. Took some there at the end of the game that you just kind of have to get up in hopes of drawing your team back close. It certainly helps breaking a record when you get to play the maximum amount of games in a season, and that’s what I’m proud of.”
Clark opened the game with the type of deep 3-pointers that have earned her a legion of fans well beyond Iowa, drawing oohs and aahs from the crowd.
But LSU was not overwhelmed by the moment. In fact, the Tigers said they believed they very much they belonged in this moment, and they played with an energy that was obvious with each shot and steal they made.
If anybody was going to keep up with Clark, it would be LSU All-American Reese, right?
Well, Reese went to the bench late in the first quarter with two fouls and sat out the entire second quarter. Enter the truly unexpected: three-time transfer and one-time LSU starter Carson. Simply put, Carson could not miss — hitting one 3 after another in a dazzling display that improbably bested Clark in the first half.
Carson said that before the game started, LSU assistant Chante’ Crutchfield told her, “Tonight’s your night.”
“When I woke up, I just wanted to win,” Carson said. “I wanted to do anything that my team needed in this game, whether it was defense, rebounding, just anything.”
Clark found herself in foul trouble, too, as the officiating drew the ire of both Mulkey and Iowa coach Lisa Bluder. In the first half, seven combined players had two foul calls apiece.
LSU was able to somehow build a lead with Reese on the bench, as Carson finished with 21 first-half points, a perfect 7-of-7 (5-of-5 from 3) and banked in a 3 just before halftime — a fitting way to end it. Clark, meanwhile, had 16.
LSU led 59-42 at the break, and though the Hawkeyes showed plenty of fight in the second half, they could not cut the deficit enough to make a serious run at the lead. Clark made her trademark shots, but she was also whistled for a questionable technical foul in the third quarter after flipping the ball behind her back out of bounds following a foul called on a teammate, and she did not quite have enough to lead the comeback charge.
Clark’s dream of getting Iowa that elusive national championship will have to wait another year. But for LSU, the first women’s basketball championship in school history could not feel much better considering where this team was when the season started.
With nine new players, Mulkey had no idea what to expect from her roster. When she said before the Sweet 16 she had no playbook for how to win a national title two years into a program, her players chimed in. Alexis Morris said, “She is the plan. Coach Mulkey is the GOAT. All LSU needed was Coach Mulkey.”
It was Morris who tried to warn everybody what was coming when she and her teammates felt “disrespected” with the way Iowa defended the South Carolina guards. She told reporters during media interviews Saturday, “I’m going to take that personally going into that game. You’re going to have to guard us.”
Johnson and her teammates said they believed they had a point to prove. LSU shot 54%, including 65% from 3-point range. You have to go back to their game against Missouri on Jan. 12 to find a day when they shot that well.
“People counted us out, they didn’t think LSU would be nothing. We’re real hoopers, and we’re the best team in college,” Johnson said. “Stamp it.”
Even when Iowa did guard LSU, the Tigers made the shots they did not make all season. They found their way in, and Mulkey found her way to a fourth national title — ranking her third on the all-time coaching list.
Afterward, Mulkey thought back to her introductory LSU news conference at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center. She asked everybody in attendance to turn around to look at the five Final Four banners hanging from the rafters.
“Nowhere on there did it say, ‘national champions,’ and that’s what I came home to do,” Mulkey said. “I’m relieved because I don’t have to think about that anymore. To see after the ballgame, the former LSU players, Seimone Augustus crying and seeing all those people that really were a part of those Final Fours but just couldn’t get over the hump.
“To walk down the hall and see my former Baylor players that won championships with me, waiting for me. To look in the stands and see my former Louisiana Tech players, it’s emotional. I am so happy. I really don’t know how to explain it. Just a deep gratitude and happiness.”