DALLAS — Kim Mulkey returned home to Louisiana wanting to bring LSU its first basketball championship. The Hall of Fame coach did just that in only her second year at the school.
Her Tigers used a record offensive performance to beat Caitlin Clark and Iowa 102-85 on Sunday and win the first basketball title, men’s or women’s, in school history.
“I turn around and look at the Final Four banners (in the home arena), nowhere did it say national champion,” Mulkey said. “That’s what I came home to do.”
The victory made Mulkey the first women’s coach to win national titles at two different schools. She won three at Baylor before leaving for LSU two years ago.
“Coaches coach a lifetime and this is the fourth time I’ve been blessed,” Mulkey said. “Never in the history of LSU basketball, men or women, has (anybody) ever played for a championship.”
The feisty and flamboyantly dressed Mulkey, who wore a sparkly, golden, tiger-striped outfit, now has the third-most national titles behind Geno Auriemma’s 11 and Pat Summitt’s eight. Mulkey has never lost in a championship game.
“My tears are tears of joy,” she said. “I’m so happy for everybody back home in Louisiana.”
Clark, The Associated Press national player of the year, couldn’t lead the Hawkeyes to their first national title despite one of the greatest individual performances in NCAA Tournament history. The junior finished with 30 points. She scored 40 in the semifinals to knock out unbeaten South Carolina one game after she had the first 40-point triple-double in NCAA history in the Elite Eight.
The dazzling guard set the NCAA record for points in a tournament, passing the 177 that Sheryl Swoopes scored in 1993 en route to leading Texas Tech to the title. Clark ended her tournament with 191.
The 102 points broke the previous high for a championship game, surpassing the 97 that Texas scored against Southern California in 1986.
“So much for preaching defense and rebounding,” Mulkey said, laughing.
Taking in the game was first lady Jill Biden, who sat in a suite above the court with tennis great Billie Jean King.
Mulkey said she hadn’t met the first lady yet but told the AP that if the team was invited to the White House, she’d go.
Jasmine Carson scored 22 points, Alexis Morris added 21 and Angel Reese had 15 points and 10 rebounds for LSU (34-2).
“It’s no one-man show around here. When I go down, the next man is up,” said Reese, who was honored as the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four. “Every single time, every time I go out or Alexis goes out, everybody always comes to step up.”
Trailing by 21 points early in the third quarter, Iowa started hitting from the outside to go on a 15-2 run, hitting four 3-pointers and converting a 3-point play to get within 65-57.
The Hawkeyes (31-7) trailed 73-64 with 1:03 left in the third quarter when Clark was called for a technical foul. She swatted the ball away on the floor after a foul call against a teammate. That counted as a personal foul for her, her fourth of the game.
“I thought they called it very, very tight,” Clark said. “Hit with a technical foul for throwing the ball under the basket — sometimes that’s how things go.”
Clark played the entire fourth quarter with four fouls but couldn’t get the Hawkeyes much closer.
“They really played well, they were ready to go. They did a great job. I’m just so proud of my team,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. “This is brutal, it’s really tough to walk out of that locker room today and not be able to coach Monika (Czinano) and McKenna (Warnock) again. I’m very thankful for the season we had and don’t want to take anything away from that.”
After Katari Poole hit a 3-pointer in front of the LSU bench, Mulkey started weeping.
“With about 1:30 to go, I couldn’t hold it. I got very emotional,” Mulkey said. “That’s not like me, but I knew we would hold on and win this game. I don’t what it was, but I lost it. Very emotional and tears of joy. Don’t know if it’s the mere fact that we’re doing it in my second year back home or that I am back home.”
A few seconds later after another LSU basket, Reese taunted Clark by putting her hand in front of her face with a “you can’t see me” gesture and then pointed to her ring finger.
As the final seconds ticked off, Mulkey and Reese hugged, setting off a wild celebration by the Tigers.
The game was tight for the first 15 minutes before Carson got hot from the outside. She made all six of her shots in the second quarter, including four 3-pointers. After one of them, she threw her hands in the air, which Mulkey mimicked on the sidelines.
For good measure, the graduate student banked in a shot just before the halftime buzzer to give the Tigers a 59-42 lead at the break. It was the most points ever in the first half of a championship game, breaking the record held by Tennessee since 1998.
LSU shot 58 percent from the field in the opening 20 minutes, including going nine for 12 from behind the arc. The Tigers finished the game shooting 54 percent from the field, including making 11 of 17 3-pointers.
Clark had 16 points and five assists before picking up her third foul with 3:56 to go in the half, which didn’t go over well with the sellout crowd of more than 19,000 fans.
Before Sunday, Carson had gone scoreless in five of her seven postseason games in her career. She had 11 points in this NCAA Tournament before the finale.
“I would definitely say this is the game of my life because I won a national championship on the biggest stage possible in college,” Carson said. “When I woke up I just wanted to win — do anything my team needed in this game, whether it was defense, rebounding, supporting them. I scored tonight and that’s what pushed us and got us momentum.”
Story by Doug Feinberg, Associated Press