Mulkey credits veteran buy-in for No. 8 LSU’s sudden climb

February 25, 2022 GMT
LSU head coach Kim Mulkey coaches in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Alabama, Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022, in Baton Rouge, La. (Hilary Scheinuk/The Advocate via AP)
LSU head coach Kim Mulkey coaches in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Alabama, Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022, in Baton Rouge, La. (Hilary Scheinuk/The Advocate via AP)
LSU head coach Kim Mulkey coaches in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Alabama, Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022, in Baton Rouge, La. (Hilary Scheinuk/The Advocate via AP)
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LSU head coach Kim Mulkey coaches in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Alabama, Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022, in Baton Rouge, La. (Hilary Scheinuk/The Advocate via AP)
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LSU head coach Kim Mulkey coaches in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Alabama, Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022, in Baton Rouge, La. (Hilary Scheinuk/The Advocate via AP)

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — LSU coach Kim Mulkey is still trying to temper expectations, even as she oversees a dramatic one-year improvement in the No. 8 Tigers’ fortunes.

LSU went 9-13 in a pandemic shortened 2020-21 season, its last under previous coach Nikki Fargas.

On Thursday night, the Tigers improved to 24-4 this season, closing out their home slate with a 58-50 triumph over an Alabama squad — a result which guarantees LSU at least a share of second place in the Southeastern Conference, behind only the nation’s top-ranked team, South Carolina.

LSU is virtually guaranteed to be back in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2018 and might even host the first two rounds.

“Let me say this: We have not arrived as a program,” Mulkey asserted. “Arriving as a program is doing this same thing many years in a row.

“We were blessed as a staff to have come in here and inherited seniors that stayed and bought into what we were doing,” Mulkey continued, noting that in her experience, it’s unusual for a new coaching staff to build the level of trust and chemistry with incumbent players as quickly as LSU did in a matter of months.

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“That tells you a lot about them,” Mulkey said, referring to the players she inherited, as well a few transfers she brought in. “They were hungry and they believed in us and they kickstarted what we hope to continue in the future.”

Mulkey, 59, grew up in Louisiana and won national titles with Louisiana Tech as both a player and assistant coach before a 21-year run at Baylor in which she won three national titles and became the fastest coach in women’s college basketball history to 600 victories, doing so in just 700 games. In 2020, she was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

Mulkey has said that leaving Baylor was difficult, but that the pull of her home state was too strong to resist after LSU athletic director Scott Woodward offered her the chance to do so. Woodward also offered Mulkey an eight-year contract with an average annual value of about $2.95 million.

Woodward has told the LSU Board of Supervisors’ athletic committee that Mulkey’s contract was right about what she was slated to make at Baylor, adding, “I couldn’t ask her to take less, obviously.”

LSU has been led this season by Khayla Pointer, a fifth-year Tiger who elected to use an extra year of eligibility granted during the COVID-19 pandemic. The 5-foot-7 guard is now on the watchlists for national player of the year awards, averaging 19 points per game.

Pointer nearly had a triple-double against Alabama, scoring 23 points to go with nine rebounds, eight assists and three steals before a large, energized crowd in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.

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While the Tigers had winning records in three of Pointer’s previous four seasons, they largely hovered around .500 in conference play until this season. They’re 12-3 in the SEC this season with one game remaining at No. 16 Tennessee on Sunday.

“When we first found out coach was coming her we were all just like, ‘Wow,’” Pointer said. “That was our first reaction because, I mean, Hall-of-Fame coach Kim Mulkey here. We couldn’t believe that she was coming to be a part of our program. We were excited. We didn’t know what to think, didn’t now what to feel, but decided to trust the process.

“It really made it memorable for us,” Pointer continued. “Who would have thought it would be the year that we’re having? ... We’ve never been top 10. We’ve never played in front of all these fans.”

Center Faustine Aifuwa said when she first found out Mulkey would be her coach, “I didn’t believe it.”

The 6-foot-5 Aifuwa said the confidence Mulkey showed in returning Tigers when she arrived has helped them improve without a major overhaul.

Mulkey brought in three transfers. Two of them — 6-2 forward Autumn Newby from Baylor and 5-6 guard Alexis Morris from Texas A&M — are starters. But three starters — Pointer, Aifuwa and 5-8 guard Jalin Cherry — were already at LSU.

“I think that was the biggest thing,” Aifuwa said. “Sometimes coaches come in, they try to change everything.”

Mulkey “just kept instilling that confidence and it continued on the whole season,” Aifuwa said.

Pointer, Aifuwa, Cherry and Newby are all graduate students.

“These guys leave when this is all over — whenever that is — and then you have to look at your roster,” Mulkey said. “You have to have some level of two, three, four and five years of consistency to say the program is back.

“We’re having a great year, but I don’t want people to think we’re feeding a monster all of a sudden,” Mulkey added. “You’re having seniors that, they’re just playing their rear ends off.”

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More AP women’s college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/womens-college-basketball and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-womens-college-basketball-poll and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25