DALLAS — When Kim Mulkey stunned the women’s college basketball world to take the LSU 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 pant suit 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 becomes the first women’s 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. LSU forward Angel Reese pointed at her ring finger. The crowd chanted, “L-S-U! L-S-U!”
As the final seconds ticked away, Mulkey leaned against the bench and was swarmed by her staff.
Iowa entered the title game as the favorite. (How could they 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.
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.
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 ahs from the crowd.
But LSU was not overwhelmed by the moment. In fact, the Tigers felt 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.
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 quite 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 did not quite have enough to lead the comeback charge.
Her 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 on Saturday, “I’m going to take that personally going into that game. You’re going to have to guard us.”
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.