Reese, defending champs LSU open NCAA play vs. Rice; Louisville aims to end MTSU’s winning streak

FILE - LSU forward Angel Reese (10) drives past Missouri forward Hayley Frank (43) during an NCAA college basketball game Thursday, Jan. 4, 2024, in Baton Rouge, La. As March Madness is set to tip off, three of the most recognizable names in college basketball are in the women’s tournament: Caitlin Clark, Angel Reese and Paige Bueckers.(Hilary Scheinuk/The Advocate via AP, File)

LSU forward Angel Reese (10) drives past Missouri forward Hayley Frank (43) during an NCAA college basketball game Thursday, Jan. 4, 2024, in Baton Rouge, La. As March Madness is set to tip off, three of the most recognizable names in college basketball are in the women’s tournament: Caitlin Clark, Angel Reese and Paige Bueckers

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — As far as LSU star Angel Reese is concerned, the third-seeded Tigers’ prospects for repeating as national champions will hinge more on their mindset than their evident abundance of talent.

Huấn luyện viên trưởng của Rice, Lindsay Edmonds, theo dõi trong hiệp một của trận đấu bóng rổ của trường đại học NCAA cho chức vô địch giải đấu American Athletic Conference gặp East Carolina, Thứ Tư, ngày 13 tháng 3 năm 2024, tại Fort Worth, Texas. (Ảnh AP/Julio Cortez)

“We didn’t have the most talented team last year,” noted Reese, whose Tigers (28-5) open play in the women’s NCAA Tournament against 14th-seeded Rice (19-14) on Friday in Baton Rouge.

“This year we have one of the most talented teams in the country,” Reese continued. ”It’s a different shift to understanding, like, what it’s really going to take to win this thing.”

Huấn luyện viên bóng rổ nữ Louisville, Jeff Walz, vỗ tay khi xem đội nam Louisville thi đấu với Bang North Carolina trong nửa đầu của giải bóng rổ đại học Atlantic Coast Conference NCAA vào Thứ Ba, ngày 12 tháng 3 năm 2024, tại Washington. (Ảnh AP / Susan Walsh)

Also facing off in Baton Rouge on Friday are No. 6 seed Louisville (24-9) and 11th-seeded Middle Tennessee (29-4).

Friday’s winners will meet here on Sunday in the second round, with the winner of that game advancing to the semifinals of the Albany 2 Region.

Reese’s scoring and rebounding numbers have dipped somewhat this season — but that’s arguably by design.

This season’s LSU starting five features two high-profile transfers — guard Hailey Van Lith (from Louisville) and forward Aneesah Morrow (from DePaul) — as well as high-scoring wing Mikaylah Williams, who was recently named SEC freshman of the year.

Like Reese, Morrow is a scoring and rebounding force inside. She ranks second on the team — behind Reese — in both categories.

Người bảo vệ LSU Hailey Van Lith (11) lái xe chống lại người bảo vệ Auburn Jamya Mingo-Young (2) trong một trận đấu bóng rổ của trường đại học NCAA vào thứ Năm, ngày 22 tháng 2 năm 2024, tại Baton Rouge, La. (Hilary Scheinuk / The Advocate qua AP)

But Reese still averaged a double-double (with per-game averages of 19 points and 13.1 rebounds), and was named an All-American and SEC Player of the Year.

“I don’t really care about points and stuff like that,” Reese said. “Being able to do whatever it takes to win is always something that has been important to me.”

While LSU’s roster includes some of the most famous and highest earning players in women’s basketball, Rice has emerged from relative anonymity.

The Owls lost their final five regular season games before stunningly winning four straight in the American Athletic Conference tournament to capture an automatic bid.

“Our February skid that we went on, no coach wants to go through that,” Rice coach Lindsay Edmonds said.

“But it allowed us to refocus. It allowed us to shift our mindset and have hunger in our eyes when we went into the conference tournament.”

Playing star-studded LSU in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center during March Madness will be a new and incomparable experience for Rice — a program that last played in the NCAA Tournament in 2019, prior to the arrival of any current players.

Edmonds noted that when preparations for LSU began, she told assistants that she didn’t need to be briefed on Tigers personnel, “because I’ve seen them enough that I know who they all are.”

“There’s going to be some things that we’re not used to,” Edmonds said. “We haven’t played in an NCAA Tournament. We haven’t played in an arena of this size that’s going to have an attendance (approaching 13,000).

We haven’t played against the status of these players.

“I hope, in the first couple minutes, we can get our nerves out and then just settle in and play basketball,” Edmonds added. “And hopefully, all that other stuff, we block it all out.”

MARCH MADNESS REGULARS

While Louisville has appeared in 15 of the last 16 women’s NCAA Tournaments under coach Jeff Walz, Middle Tennessee has been no stranger to March Madness during the tenure of coach Rick Insell.

The Blue Raiders will be making their second straight NCAA appearance — and 12th since Insell took over in 2005.

“We got basically most of the team back” from last season, noted Insell, whose team hasn’t lost since Dec. 30 and has won 19 straight since. “We’ve kind of been on a run, and we’re kind of excited about where our basketball team is at right now.”

MTSU beat Louisville when they last played one another last season, and the Blue Raiders look like a formidable foe for Louisville, which plays in a stronger conference, but hasn’t strung two victories together since Feb. 1.

Louisville will want its 12-game trend of alternating wins and losses to continue for at least one more game; the Cardinals are coming off a loss to Notre Dame in the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament.

“Our conference is probably one of the best in the country, if not the best,” Louisville senior guard Merissah Russell said. “We’re a very battle-tested team.”

FAMILIAR FACES

While Louisville and LSU might not meet in the second round, the fact that Van Lith’s previous team was sent to play at her current school was a topic of discussion.

“I was her roommate for three years, so I talk to her almost every week,” Louisville’s Russell said of Van Lith.

But Russell added that the Cardinals cannot afford to be preoccupied by the possibility of facing their former star teammate in the second round.

“You have to pay attention to the teams in front of you and put that story line behind us,” Russell said.

Van Lith said she expects her relationship with Russell to last “the rest of my life.”

“She’s a great friend,” Van Lith added. “I love to support her in any way I can, but I’m a competitor, and if the time comes to compete, then I compete.”

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