College Football & Soccer Analyst
DALLAS — Kim Mulkey looked up at the scoreboard in astonishment and cried out.
In just his second season at LSU, he led the program to win its first national championship by beating Iowa 102-85 on Sunday afternoon at the American Airlines Center. The Tigers are the first team to score 60-plus points in the women’s final.
“It’s crazy here, good stuff,” Mulkey said on stage as he accepted the national championship trophy.
While the classic order wasn’t upset, it’s a notable win in itself given how the last few weeks of the NCAA Tournament have been dominated by The Caitlin Clark Show. The 6-foot Iowa superstar averaged 32.0 points per game in scoring and posted his first national title game fresh off back-to-back 41-point games. And after the defending champions knocked off South Carolina in the Final Four, this was a game for the Hawkeyes to lose.
And that was done. Clark still scored 30 points, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the fiery Tigers.
Here are three thoughts from the heroic national title game:
Who saw this coming?
Well, maybe UNC did.
Clark made a statement to start the game—his first shot attempt was a deep 3-pointer, which gave him the NCAA tournament record for 3-pointers—and ran off to score a quick 14 points in the first 10 minutes.
But that was the only time the Hawkeyes looked likely to win. The second quarter was about Jasmine Carson. The UNC guard came off the bench and stole the show from Clark. He went for 21 points on 7-of-7 shooting and 5-of-5 from 3-point range, including a stunning 3-pointer to end the first half and lead the team to 59-42. Those 59 points in half of the Final Four were a record and set the tone for the rest of the day.
“This is the game of my life,” said Carson, a senior who transferred from West Virginia. “I won the national championship on the biggest stage. When I woke up, I just wanted to win. I wanted to do whatever my team needed in this game. Whether it was defense, rebounding, anything that helped. I scored tonight. And that really pushed us and the moment he got us.”
Iowa got into foul trouble in the middle when Clark had his fourth technical and seniors Monika Czinano and McKenna Warnock both fouled out with so much time left to play.
It didn’t even matter in the end, as LSU was more prepared this time. Angel Reese, who played just nine minutes in the first half with two assists, notched her 34th double-double of the season — a NCAA record — with 15 points and 10 rebounds. Alexis Morris, who scored two points in the half, finished with 22 points and nine assists.
Iowa’s game plan against South Carolina in Friday’s semifinal was to shoot it from the perimeter, which was not one of their strengths. LSU doesn’t usually take a lot of 3-point shots — although they were better from long range than South Carolina — and they usually score most of their points in the paint. The Tigers out-shot the Hawkeyes, though, going 54% from the floor on 70 attempts. They were 65% from 3, scored 26 turnovers, scored 34 points in the paint and outrebounded Iowa, 37-26.
“I knew going into this Iowa couldn’t guard us the way they guarded South Carolina,” Morris said.
Clark scored 30 points, but only one inside the arc. While South Carolina needed five players to try and contain it, LSU relied mostly on Morris, who was more than up to the challenge after battling Virginia Tech’s Georgia Amoore on Friday.
“He didn’t save you from the slag because you’re good,” Mulkey said. “But what she did, all her shots were made, they took it a little bit harder for easy. We knew Caitlin was going to shoot the ball. We knew she was going to make 3s. But we couldn’t give her 10 or 12 points. She always made layups. She made free throws, and those He had 3s, but he didn’t get many shots inside the arc.”
LSU may not have been the best team in the SEC this year. That was South Carolina. The Tigers have kind of flown under the radar, losing only two games this season, one in the regular season to the Gamecocks and then to Tennessee in the SEC tournament.
Now they are the unlikely national champions.
Caitlin Clark will be back
Lucky for everyone, Clark is only a junior and will be returning for his senior year. The potentially better news than that is that it could enjoy an extra year of games granted by COVID-19 athletes, meaning Iowa could play for two more seasons if it wanted to.
For example, Elizabeth Kitley, the Virginia Tech senior star and Player of the Year finalist, announced on Sunday that she will be returning for a year outside of COVID.
How likely is it that Clark, who was named National Player of the Year last week, will do the same? It depends. How badly does he want to excommunicate his patronage? Of course, this will be a senior one to win after being so close this year. There is also nothing to account for it. An athlete like Clarke can make more money through NIL in college than through her WNBA rookie contract, which enticed her to stay in school for two more years.
LSU’s Reese took a brief look at this topic Saturday when he was asked about the WNBA’s shortage of players.
“This is a big goal for me right now, especially since NIL, I can make as much money in college, probably as the WNBA,” Reese said.
But when Clark was asked about his legacy – who ultimately does a lucrative NIL, a national championship and maybe another POY honor – he didn’t even mention winning. He spoke rather than upset and sad that he doesn’t want to practice with his teammates tomorrow and how he hopes to inspire young kids.
“I don’t think I’ll be sitting down for a while,” Clark said. “I want my legacy to be the impact I can have on the young kids and the people of the state of Iowa. I hope I brought them a lot of joy this season. I hope this team brought them a lot of joy.”
UNC on the rise with Mulkey
Mulkey is in a class of his own.
After building Baylor into a powerhouse and winning three titles over two decades, he surprised many when he decided to return to his Louisiana roots and transferred to UNC. Now, Rick Pitino (Kentucky 1996, Louisville 2013) is the only coach to win a national championship with two different programs, although Pitino’s second title was vacated due to NCAA sanctions.
So whatever you think of Mulkey or his feathers and feathers and stripes—he wore a tiger-striped suit for the national championship game that could double as a perfectly acceptable outfit for a Taylor Swift concert winner.
This was LSU’s first trip to a national championship in men’s or women’s basketball, and the Tigers will have to deal immediately with the next season as they lose two top players from this team and return core players like Reese, Kateri Poole and Flau’ Jac Johnson.
One of the stories of the weekend was how Mulkey built this team and its culture with nine players so quickly and he had them ready at this moment to take over and dominate. The gate transfer and NIL played a significant role – Morris, Reese and Carson are all great examples of that. But more than that, his players talk about being best friends and having a tight room as if they’ve been playing together for four years rather than a few months.
“We’ve got a coffee shop full of kids who love coffee,” Mulkey said. “They’ll tell you how they feel, they’ll talk trash on the floor. You have to be a strong coach to coach these people and I say I’m not a pat on the back, but I don’t have a problem getting in their face.”
Clearly, UNC and Mulkey are a perfect match, and this championship could be the first of many to come.
Lake Litman covers college football, basketball and college soccer for FOX Sports. He previously wrote for Sports Illustrated, USA Today and the Indianapolis Star, and is the author of “Strong Like a Woman,” published in spring 2022 to mark the 50th anniversary of Title IX. Follow her on Twitter @LakenLitman.
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