Angel Reese Returns From Mysterious Absence To Help LSU Beat Virginia Tech

Thursday’s game between No. 7 LSU and No. 9 Virginia Tech, a rematch of last season’s Final Four, seemed like a soft deadline of sorts. Angel Reese had missed four games since being benched—two against cupcake opponents and two at a Cayman Islands tournament she didn’t travel to—and if she wasn’t back in the PMAC to face the Tigers’ toughest opponent yet, something might be really wrong. But back she was, looking like her old self as LSU defeated Virginia Tech, 82-64, in the kind of résumé-boosting win the Tigers lacked last season.

As Reese’s absence dragged on for two weeks, LSU head coach Kim Mulkey withheld specifics. What she first called “a coach’s decision” was later obliquely classified as “locker room issues.” She announced Reese’s return on Wednesday in her opening statement at a weird postgame press conference in which she thwacked the table with her soda bottle, sat down, and delivered a quick combined update on Reese, the also mysteriously missing Kateri Poole, and the injured Sa’Myah Smith. “Angel’s back, Kateri’s not and Sa’Myah’s done for the year,” Mulkey said. “Sadly, she tore her knee up.”

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With that business out of the way, the Tigers could move on and prepare to play a Virginia Tech team whose calling card is chemistry. Last season, the Hokies won the ACC Tournament and reached the Final Four thanks to swaggy Australian point guard Georgia Amoore and reliable big Elizabeth Kitley. The two have a fun odd couple thing going on—Kitley is a full foot taller than the 5-foot-6 Amoore—and their easy connection looked like a potential advantage over an LSU team still figuring out how to add a top-ranked recruiting class and two star transfers to the fold.

But the version of LSU that showed up on Thursday night had figured it out. The on-paper team came to life. Everyone ate. What was true in last season’s tournament is still true this season: The Tigers’ speed and length at every position allows them to do so much on both sides of the ball. Inside, they turned Kitley to mush, doubling or tripling her and wisely betting that they’d still have time to recover if she kicked the ball out. On offense, they looked like a classic Mulkey team, demoralizing opponents with second-chance points. The Tigers out-rebounded the Hokies 43-29, and while Reese was involved enough there to get to the free throw line 16 times, 15 of the rebounds came from Aneesah Morrow, a DePaul transfer who had only started to play well in Reese’s absence but looked just fine as a scorer alongside her. Morrow and Reese each finished with 19 points. Freshman Mikaylah Williams, increasingly tempting me to say she is the best player on the team, led LSU with 20.

After the game, Reese answered questions about the four-game “reset.” She credited her mother and also Shaq for supporting her; O’Neal apparently FaceTimed her every day she was away from the team. “My mental health is the most important thing before anything, and I’m going to make sure I’m OK before anything, because I don’t want to cause harm or any cancer in the locker room,” she said. Next to Reese sat Mulkey, her hair dripping wet in the aftermath of the team’s celebration for her 700th career win. The Tigers are interesting when they’re a mess, but they’re just as interesting when all is well.

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