The LSU women’s basketball team added offensive pizazz to its roster through the transfer portal and recruiting between Kim Mulkey’s first and second seasons as coach.
Twenty games in and the unbeaten, No. 4 Tigers still lead the nation with an 88.2 scoring average, partly fueled by five consecutive 100-point games to start the season.
But the bedrock of success for LSU (20-0, 8-0) at the Southeastern Conference midway point remains defense, and there’s nothing coincidental about it.
While Mulkey restocked the roster with talented offensive players, they’ve also met or exceeded her expectations on the defensive end. She said it’s the aspect of her team she’s happiest about as the Tigers prepare for Tennessee (16-7, 8-0) in a key conference clash at 6 p.m. Monday at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.
“How they have really bought into understanding the value of defense and rebounding,” Mulkey said about what has made her proudest of her team with nine newcomers. “It shows in our stats. That’s not something a lot of kids want to buy in to. They want to look at offense when they choose a school. Those were things discussed with all of them.”
Mulkey reiterated last week that when players choose LSU, she sits down with them to create a clear picture of how to succeed in her system. Defense tops the list, with rebounding a close second.
Mulkey will celebrate the double-doubles by Angel Reese, the 3-point shooting of Alexis Morris and Jasmine Carson, and the offensive creativity freshman Flau’jae Johnson has brought. But the quickest way to get pulled from a game by Mulkey is to let the defensive intensity drop, even a little.
“You will stay on the floor for me if you can’t shoot a lick but you can defend,” Mulkey said. “(Former Baylor guard) DiDi Richards is an example of that. She wasn’t on the floor for her offense. She could disrupt the entire flow of the game because of her defense. That has been a pleasant surprise this early with this many new players.”
The defensive stats are just as impressive than LSU’s offensive accomplishments. The Tigers are third in the nation in field-goal percentage defense, allowing opponents to shoot 31.6%. The Tigers also allow 51.8 points per game, which is sixth in the nation.
Even factoring out a weak nonconference schedule, LSU’s field-goal percentage defense average rises only to 33.1% in eight SEC games. Only one SEC foe (Arkansas at 44.4%) has shot better than 37%.
Another indicator is 3-point shooting defense (24.4%), which ranks second in the conference and fourth in the nation. LSU also is averaging 10.2 steals per game, and its opponents are averaging 18.2 turnovers per game.
Getting the players to buy in was especially tough since there were only six holdover players. Mulkey had to start over with nine new players and get them to accept the principles of her system. Defense requires hustle, teamwork, conditioning and trust, and no player is exempt.
Reese, who has infused excitement into the program with her offensive play, was the key to LSU’s 89-51 victory over Alabama. Despite assistant coach Bob Starkey trying to talk her out of it, Mulkey put the 6-2 Reese on Alabama’s star 5-9 guard Brittany Davis, the SEC’s No. 5 scorer at 17.5 points per game. Her length disrupted Davis into a 5-of-15 shooting night and 11 points.
“Everybody on the team plays a role from top to bottom,” Reese said. “Everybody knowing their role, coming together at the right time, knowing what we can do, our weaknesses and strengths and coming back to practice ... it’s something I’ve never been a part of.
"The team can critique each other and be on each other so hard and not be personal. I love that about (this team).”