LSU flew the flag on Thursday night. The No. 7 Tigers faced a deficit at home against No. 9 Virginia Tech at the end of the first quarter. But the Tigers proceed to devour the Hokies, with only feathers lodged in their teeth remaining after an 82-64 victory. This game was Final Four Most Outstanding Player Angel Reese’s first since being benched four games ago in the second half against Kent State, and also head coach Kim Mulkey’s 700th career victory.
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Mulkey’s team dumped water on her in celebration as she entered the locker room, and then Reese and DePaul transfer Annesah Morrow bookended their coach while wearing “Kim Mulkey 700” shirts at the postgame podium. Reese finished the game with 19 points and nine rebounds on 50 percent shooting, including four first-quarter offensive boards. Morrow also scored 19 points and hauled in 15 rebounds. The night could be considered perfect, except for the fact that Kateri Poole was still not with the team.
LSU has a loaded roster. After winning a national championship, Regional Finalist Louisville’s leading 2022-23 scorer — Hailey Van Lith — Morrow, and true freshman mega-recruit Mikaylah Williams were added to the team.
A team that still had stars such as Reese and Poole on the roster. LSU lost its first game of the 2023-24 season to Colorado — who entered Thursday with the same No. 7 ranking as the Tigers in the AP poll.
With all of the rumors swirling around the absence of Reese and Poole — who has played a total of five minutes after not seeing the floor against Kent State, and has not been with the team for the last three games — Mulkey has consistently refused to give specifics about players’ absences which has allowed imaginations to run wild as to why.
Poole did not fill up the stat sheet last season after she transferred to LSU from Ohio State. However, as LSU’s point guard, she was a steadying presence as the primary ball handler. When she fouled out against Utah in the fourth quarter of a Sweet-16 matchup, the final score was her team’s narrowest margin of victory in the tournament — 66-63. She also became a dependable 3-point shooter — 53.8 percent from behind the arc.
With the all-world team that LSU has assembled for this season, handling personalities was going to be a herculean task for Mulkey. She brought in top transfer portal and freshman talent with a national championship core returning.
Mulkey refuses to reveal why Reese was not with the team for a while, nor why Poole was absent for a home game that doubled as a historic moment. The head coach has claimed that she is protecting her players by not giving specifics about their absences. In Mulkey’s defense, at the end of Reese’s Thursday night press availability, the young forward did speak about taking care of her mental health.
Maybe Mulkey is allowing her players to step away from the pressures of the national spotlight. However, if Reese has been dealing with mental health issues, then Mulkey could have at least put a stop to rumors that the Final Four MOP’s absence was due to discipline. The public is not entitled to know about college athletes’ personal problems, but if there was any way to ease some of the social media speculation, Mulkey should have tried to do so. In 2023, part of protecting players is giving the social networks as little fuel to burn as possible. Mulkey’s non-inclination to divulge information will not stop the posts.
I do not believe that coaches owe the public anything when it comes to player discipline. Coaches’ obligations in those instances rest with the players, their families, and in worst-case scenarios, alleged victims.
I am not comfortable expressing an opinion as to the reason for the extended absences of Angel Reese and Kateri Poole. That being said, I am also not comfortable with Reese returning wearing a celebratory 700-win t-shirt with Mulkey beside her at a press conference, and Poole is still not with the team.
One 21-year-old sidling with a power broker following an absence does not provide a conclusion to a nebulous couple of weeks.