DALLAS - Let’s stipulate that it’s pretty hard to make Kim Mulkey really cry. Not phony ref-pleading bawling, but actual tears. By the time the final three-pointer had slipped silkily through the net for LSU, and her team had finished utterly wrecking Iowa with 102 points, she staggered against the scorer’s table and wept with astonishment at what they had done. LSU’s national championship was so unexpectedly brilliant that it was nearly as brilliant as that shimmering circus fire juggler’s outfit Mulkey had on, and some kind of fire was what she put in her team.
“It’s really not like me,” she said. " . . . I don’t know what it was, but I lost it.”
Lord knows what she said to them behind closed doors to provoke such a record outburst of points in that 102-85 national final. But you got some kind of clue from the way Angel Reese stalked tournament darling Caitlin Clark, Iowa’s player of the year, at the buzzer. First, Reese mockingly passed a hand over her face in that “You can’t see me gesture,” the one Clark herself had borrowed from WWE wrestler John Cena, the one that means you’re a superhero. Then Reese followed Clark toward the handshake line, holding up her ring finger and gesturing at it.
Point taken. And see you again next year. “Buckle up,” remarked Iowa’s Monika Czinano after the game. Both stars will presumably return to the NCAA tournament next year, and if the 2023-24 event is anything close to as pleasurable and explosive as this one has been, it may be worth $100 million or more in new TV rights fees, because the women’s media contract is up for negotiation, and at a time when audience records have been shattered along with the scoring ones.
“I’m happy,” Reese said. “I mean, all year I was critiqued about who I was. I don’t fit the narrative. I don’t fit in the box you all want me to be in. I’m too hood. I’m too ghetto. . . . When other people do it, you all don’t say nothing. So, this was for the girls who look like me. It’s [about] being unapologetically you. . . . I feel like I helped women’s basketball grow.”
Argument raged on social media about whether the 20-year-old Reese’s celebration was good or bad for the game, exuberant emotion or a graceless taunt of Clark, who it must be said is no small trash talker herself. But the broader fact of the matter was that this was a watershed event for women’s basketball, a burgeoning that was far more important than any rivalrous sniping on Twitter. Mulkey was dismissive of the social media flaming of Reese and professed total ignorance about what happened in the handshake line.
“I have no clue. . . . I can’t help you in any area of what was said. . . . And quite frankly, I don’t care,” she said. “I waste no time on all that stuff.”
What mattered more, she insisted, was what a crossover hit this tournament was.
“Talk to me along those lines. Taylor Swift’s in town and we still sold out,” she said.
Coming into the game, Clark had virtually cornered the public market on star quality with her 40-point outpourings. But if anyone could rival her for attention, it was Mulkey, with her raven’s voice and eccentric Vegasy sideline get-ups, shimmering ring fingers and stomping platform heels. With the fourth national championship of her career - won in only her second season at LSU after defecting from Baylor - Mulkey has to be reckoned one of the historical coaching greats of the game. Few other coaches could have cobbled together such a team out of nine new players. They were a project, who arguably only found their peak chemistry in this game.
“I don’t have a locker room full of pushovers,” Mulkey said. No, she did not.
The Tigers played like giants in this game, summoning out-of-body experiences to soar far above their previous standard. It was an utterly unforeseen performance as they rained in shots from all quarters, including unlikely separators from the golden-haloed Jasmine Carson, a senior who averaged less than 9 points but went off for 22, going 5 for 6 from behind the arc, including a banker at the halftime buzzer. Their 64.7 percent make rate from three-point range was nearly double their season average.
“I don’t know how we did it,” Mulkey said. " . . . You’re playing against a generational talent in Clark. We knew we had to score the ball with them.”
Obviously, they took Iowa’s offensive prowess as a challenge - they had noted how Clark and the Hawkeyes sagged off South Carolina’s shooters en route to their upset in the semifinals. “Very disrespectful,” Tigers guard Alexis Morris called the defensive strategy the day before the game. After pouring in 21 points, Morris clarified that she hadn’t meant to insult Clark - who had 30 points in the loss - or Iowa.
“That was clever, that was intelligent, and I gave credit to them,” she said. " . . . Caitlin is literally changing the game for us. I want to make that clear I give respect when it is due and credit when it is due.”
Iowa returned the favor. When the confetti had cleared, the Hawkeyes refused to make an issue of Reese’s animated celebration, or of the patently atrocious officiating. Sure, the refs were poor - they saddled Clark with four fouls, including an unpardonable technical, and sent Czinano to the bench for good midway through the final period, making a comeback unrealistic. But the bottom line is that Iowa simply could not defend Mulkey’s team.
“They were tremendous,” Clark said. “They made some tough threes, some tough jumpers off ball screens, and sometimes you have to live with that.” As for Reese’s gesture, Clark was gracious, preferring to compliment the Tigers’ overwhelming victory. “Honestly, I have no idea,” she said. “I was just trying to get to the handshake line.”