BATON ROUGE, La. — It’s halftime of her team’s recent game against Tennessee, and LSU coach Kim Mulkey isn’t thrilled with her team’s slim 5-point lead and, in particular, the performance of her best player.
That player, Angel Reese, posted four points and four rebounds at the half. A far cry from the walking double-double (20 straight entering the game) who has steered the stunning ascent of the Tigers to an undefeated record and a No. 3 ranking.
“You’re supposed to be the national player of the year,” Reese recalled Mulkey sternly telling her. “And it’s not looking like it right now.”
After Reese’s initial response to the critique (“damn”), she emerged from the locker room the dominant player Mulkey expected as she posted another double-double (18 points, 17 rebounds) in LSU’s 76-68 win.
When Reese opted to leave Maryland last season, she was expected to have the biggest impact of any player in the transfer portal. She has lived up to the expectations, helping an LSU team that entered the season with nine newcomers to a 23-0 record and a No. 3 ranking to set up Sunday’s must-see game against No. 1 South Carolina, the defending national champion (2 p.m. ET, ESPN).
It’s a battle between the last two unbeaten teams in college basketball, and the second time in LSU history the team has appeared in a game between Top 3 teams. And in a showcase of the two most dominant teams in college basketball this season, it’s Reese — the trash-talking, lengthy eyelash-wearing, Coach-bag-giving viral video star — who will enter the afternoon as the game’s biggest attraction.
Just how quickly has Baton Rouge embraced Reese in her first season at LSU? When you drive around the city, chances are you’ll come across one of several billboards featuring Reese.
The image is beautifully striking: Angel standing in front of the Baton Rouge skyline, her outstretched arms palming basketballs and a halo encircling her head.
The words accompanying the image reflect the current status of the Baltimore-born player dubbed “Bayou Barbie” here in Baton Rouge.
“City of Angel.”
There’s a chance you never heard of Reese before last month if you weren’t a die-hard women’s basketball fan.
That changed the night of Jan. 19, when Reese registered the block heard round the world against Arkansas. That’s the night the foot of teammate Flau’jae Johnson separated Reese’s left foot from her sneaker.
Reese anticipated a stoppage in play so she would lace back up, but that didn’t happen. Arkansas guard Samara Spencer, who is 5-feet-7, drove the lane to challenge Reese, a towering 6-3.
Reese, holding her shoe in her left hand, blocked the attempt with her right hand and shot the fallen guard a death glare.
The immediate result of that block and ensuing glare: an unsportsmanlike technical foul for Reese.
That play also earned Reese a starring role in a viral video embraced by many and criticized by others who didn’t appreciate block and stare down that male players get away with nightly.
“People don’t like it and they think it’s not ladylike, but I’m honestly unapologetically me and I’m going to be that every day,” Reese said in response to the criticism. “I believe that women should be able to talk trash. I believe that we should be able to be who we are — just like the men — without having people judge us.”
That viral video and Reese’s response have paid off big.
Reese’s social media impressions — the number of people who came across her on Twitter — in the week following the video reached 110 million impressions, according to the school. That led to an explosion in her Instagram following, which went from 110,000 before the block to 338,000 followers this week.
That increase in followers has resulted in an expansion of name, image and likeness opportunities for Reese, whose brand has extended from appearing with teammates in posts touting a national fast-food chain and a Baton Rouge attorney to pushing fashion products. Reese presented Coach bags to her teammates last week in a partnership with the luxury fashion house.
“This has allowed her to meet people who can help her in terms of business and financial literacy,” said Reese’s mother, Angel Reese, a former basketball star at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County. “For Angel, it’s more than collecting a check. With all the social media engagements, it’s helped with her brand and helped with her future.”
It helps that Reese has lived up to the expectations that have elevated LSU, a school that has reached a Top 5 ranking for the first time since 2009.
Reese is the nation’s fifth-best scorer (23.5 points per game) and second-best rebounder (15.8) while establishing an LSU record for consecutive double-doubles (23) and the SEC record for double-doubles to start the season. She’s the only Division I player with multiple 20-20 games, and her 28 rebounds against Texas A&M on Jan. 5 set a school record.
“Angel has always been the biggest player on the court and most coaches put her in the post and made her play with her back to the basket,” said LSU guard Kateri Poole. “Look at her now and she’s bringing the ball up the court, and she’s hitting outside shots. Most important is that she’s a leader, and if you watch her on the court you see, at times, she’s more of a coach than player.”
It’s Poole who gets the credit for Reese’s transfer to LSU.
“She told me she was transferring and told me she wanted to play for a coach who was a woman and who was going to push her,” Poole said. “I told her ‘I’m taking a visit to LSU, why don’t you come with me?’ ”
“Coming to a school where they love women’s basketball and respect it the same as the men is great. To get that, you have to win … When you win, you grab everybody’s attention.”
— Angel Reese on transferring from Maryland to LSU
Mulkey called Reese when she hit the portal, but never really thought she had a shot based on their conversation when she tried to recruit the nation’s No. 2 high school player to Baylor following her All-American career at Saint Frances Academy in Baltimore.
“Back then I wasn’t ready,” Reese said. “I was scared to go away from home.”
She wasn’t ready to link up with Mulkey last year, as Reese had just two teams on her list (South Carolina and Tennessee) when she decided to transfer. But she accepted Poole’s invitation, went to Baton Rouge and was persuaded to transfer to LSU — and cancel her other visits — while chowing down on crawfish and oysters during a cookout at Mulkey’s home.
“I laid out what I wanted and she had laid out her plan for me over the next two to three years,” Reese said. “I needed coach as much as she needed me. So, it was just perfect.”
Also a factor for Reese was the support for women’s basketball at LSU, which drew 15,157 fans to the Tennessee game at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center. That’s the largest crowd at the arena since its reconfiguration in 2005.
At Maryland, where Reese played her first two seasons, the attendance for the eighth-ranked women’s team falls so far short of the unranked men’s team that its players are pointing out the difference.
“I didn’t think the students came out to the women’s basketball games like they should,” said Reese, who witnessed it firsthand while watching her younger brother, Julian Reese, play for the men’s team. “I felt like the women’s team was the best team in Maryland. When my mom came out to my games, she could sit wherever she wanted.”
Fans would be hard-pressed to grab any seat for LSU this season with the women’s team outdrawing the men.
“Coming to a school where they love women’s basketball and respect it the same as the men is great,” Reese said. “To get that, you have to win. Coach Mulkey has come in with all these recruits, freshmen and transfers and we’ve won. When you win, you grab everybody’s attention.”
At times, it’s surprising just whose attention you grab.
Following her struggles in the first half of the Jan. 30 game against Tennessee — the game where she was challenged at halftime by her coach — Reese poked the ball away from Lady Vols guard Rickea Jackson at the top of the key, dribbled down the court and was fouled as she extended for a layup.
Reese, after making the shot, licked her fingers as her teammates approach. Moments later, she hit a TikTok dance.
It’s another viral moment that reached millions, including 16-year-old Ta’keyla Williamson in Blevins, Arkansas. Three nights later, Williamson posted a video that includes her licking her fingers after being fouled on a made basket and hitting her own TikTok move after being knocked to the floor while converting a layup.
Williamson posted her clip, directing it at Reese with the hashtag #AngelReese INSPIRED.
“She’s an inspiration because a lot of females can’t be on the court talking like they want to talk,” said Williamson, a junior guard at Blevins High School, who discovered Reese after her video went viral. “I got a tech in a game for putting my hand down like the girl was too little. The ref told me it wasn’t good sportsmanship, but the men do it all the time.”
Reese retweeted Williamson’s post:
The response, for Reese, was important. She wanted to encourage a player who, because she’s a girl, might catch heat for her mode of expression.
Reese learned firsthand in high school how it felt to be negatively targeted, as her style of play led an opposing high school coach to disparage her on social media.
Reese also knows how impactful an encounter with a basketball star can be, which she demonstrated by tweeting a 2011 photograph of her alongside former LSU and WNBA star Seimone Augustus.
“I always prided myself on making sure to sign autographs and take pictures with everyone I encountered,” Augustus said. “Twelve years later I see the photo — now knowing who Angel Reese was — and find out how much that meant to her. I’m happy I was an example for her to continue her basketball journey, and I’m glad she’s doing the same for the next generation.”
It’s the day after the win over Tennessee and Reese, fresh from a massage, has a moment of reflection in a room just steps from the court at the assembly center.
She said that the decision to move from Maryland to Baton Rouge was difficult.
“Baltimore is home, we could have made history at Maryland and there was comfort knowing my mother and grandparents could always be at my games,” Reese said. “Leaving was scary. The step I took was one I never thought I’d be able to take.”
But LSU embraced her. So did Baton Rouge, which has all but given her a key to the city.
That’s what becoming the most important component on an undefeated, Top 5 team will do.
“A scary move, but the best move I could ever take,” Reese said. “These people are like family, and they show the same type of love at the end of games that my family would.
“I’m incredibly happy.”
On Sunday, Reese will step into the biggest spotlight of her athletic life. A road game against a 24-0 South Carolina team that currently has the longest winning streak in women’s college basketball (30 games). It’s a nice appetizer — a college basketball game between the last two unbeaten teams in Division I — on Super Bowl Sunday.
“It’s going to be great for women’s basketball,” Reese said. “This isn’t Angel Reese vs. Aliyah Boston, this is South Carolina vs. LSU. We’ll all be ready and may the best team win.”