Angel Reese was back in the lineup as No. 7 LSU took down No. 9 Virginia Tech 82-64 on Thursday night in a rematch of last season's Final Four meeting. It also served as coach Kim Mulkey's 700th career win.
She became the fastest, in NCAA Div. I men's or women's basketball, to reach the 700-mark as a head coach, and Mulkey pulled it off in just her 813th game on the sideline.
"These victories are special to me, but my impact on these girls is the most important," she said. "All in all, reaching 700 victories is nice, but I am most proud of my basketball team and where they have come."
Reese, a unanimous first-team All-American selection last season, hadfor what was reported as locker room issues. However, everything had been resolved as Mulkey and Reese shared a long hug after the game.
"It feels great. My teammates were holding it down and I'm just super happy to be back with the team," said Reese, who led LSU to its first national championship last season. "This atmosphere, I missed this so much. I'm just happy to move forward and be back."
As for her relationship with her coach, Reese said she needs Mulkey and always will.
"I'm going to say that today, tomorrow, next year, 'til the day I die. That's just how I feel. I'm at LSU because of Kim Mulkey," she said.
Reese was honored for reaching 1,000 career rebounds before the game and got a warm welcome from the crowd at Pete Maravich Assembly Center. Although she didn't have a perfect night, the junior forward flirted with a double-double of 19 points and nine rebounds. Nine of those points came from the free-throw line.
While Reese's return grabbed much of the attention, her LSU teammates quietly filled the stat sheet. Freshman Mikaylah Williams led the Tigers' offense with 20 points on 60% shooting. Junior guard Aneesah Morrow registered her 56th career double-double with 19 points and 12 rebounds, along with two blocks and three steals.
"It feels great, I'm just trying to be as consistent as I can for the team," Morrow said.
Sophomore guard Flau'jae Johnson also contributed with 13 points and eight boards.
LSU got off to a slow start with seven turnovers and shot just 4 of 15 from the field in the first quarter. But the tables turned as Virginia Tech was held to only three field goals in the next 10 minutes. After the Tigers collected themselves in the locker room at halftime, they started to pull away in the third quarter.
As a team, LSU outrebounded Virginia Tech 43-29 and held a 17-8 advantage in second-chance points. The Tigers got to the free-throw line significantly more, getting 26 attempts while the Hokies got 11.
Senior guard Georgia Amoore led the Hokies with 25 points. Grad student center Elizabeth Kitley fouled out with 4:35 left after contributing 16 points and 11 rebounds.
Thursday's game was a rematch from the 2023 Final Four in which LSU took down Virginia Tech 79-72. After the Tigers dropped their season opener to Colorado, the reigning national champions have rolled off eight straight victories.
Next up, LSU plays host to the University of Louisiana-Lafayette on Dec. 10. Virginia Tech faces Long Island University in Blacksburg on Wednesday.
Here are the main takeaways from LSU's victory over Virginia Tech:
Gaining confidence was key for Reese
Reese hasn't been quite the same dominant player she was last season, but having her on the roster still makes the Tigers better.
She wasn't off to the best start, as she picked up just four points and two fouls in the first quarter. Potential foul trouble for a star player is usually concerning for head coaches, but Mulkey wanted to make sure Reese found her rhythm.
"I don't put them back in, usually, in the first half. But I don't want to lose the confidence," Mulkey said in the broadcast at halftime. "I've got her in the right mindset. The team feeds off of her."
Mulkey already demonstrated she is not afraid to bench a player, even Reese, when needed. In fact, Reese got benched the entire second half of the Kent State game on Nov. 14. She played a total of 30 minutes on Thursday, and when she was on the bench, Reese was visibly supportive of her teammates.
She didn't go off and had a historic game, but her 19 points and nine rebounds were still a solid contribution. Reese finished the night going 5 of 10 from the field and 9 of 16 from the free-throw line.
This is not just Reese's team anymore
Reese led the team in scoring and rebounding last season, but this year the roster has a lot of other star players. Although the games the Tigers played without her were against unranked opponents, it was still clear this team has potential to be really strong even without Reese.
"They can obviously play without me. Just coming back and doing whatever it takes to win and I did as much as I could today," Reese said. "We have a lot of leadership outside of me. Seeing this team grow from when I wasn't here really shows a lot and I'm really happy for this team, where we are right now."
Junior guard Aneesah Morrow and freshman Mikaylah Williams were the Tigers' leading scorers in Reese's absence, and they continued to dominate on Thursday. According to ESPN Stats & Info, this was Morrow's 30th career game with at least 15 points and 15 rebounds –- 4th most in D1 women's basketball over the last 25 seasons.
Morrow was also guarding one of Virginia Tech's top stars, Elizabeth Kitley. She shared that difficult job with Flau'jae Johnson. Kitley is averaging 23.1 points per game while shooting 56.3% from the field this season. She only went 6 of 16 on Thursday on her way to 16 points.
Johnson was one of the "unsung heroes," as described by Mulkey. Another one was senior guard Hailey Van Lith, who was assigned to guard Georgia Amoore –- the Hokies' other leading scorer.
The team took a hit afterlast week. She was averaging 11.7 points on 66% shooting while adding 7.6 rebounds per game and a total of 11 blocks. However, LSU still has five other double-digit scorers and some tough defenders. Reese being back also helps in the rebounding category.
The Hokies need more time together
Virginia Tech has potential to make make some noise in the NCAA Tournament again, but it's going to take some patience and more players to step up.
The Hokies did have some good moments against LSU, but overall there wasn't a lot of balance. As a team, the Hokies had 14 turnovers, and only six assists on the night. Amoore and Kitley combined for 41 of the Hokies' 64 points. They also took 40 out of Virginia Tech's 64 field goal attempts.
Head coach Kenny Brooks acknowledged his team has some work to do, but he also felt positive about the fact that it is still early in the season.
"We need to get better. Gotta figure out our kids, their roles. We need to get tougher," he said. "I'm just trying to build the chemistry amongst each other so we understand where we need to be. That's what these games are for so we'll continue to work and we'll be a much better basketball team because of opportunities like this."