The party was on in Baton Rouge as the buzzer sounded marking the No. 7 LSU Tigers' resounding 82-64 victory over the No. 9 Virginia Tech Hokies on Thursday night in the ACC/SEC Challenge. LSU players quickly donned purple shirts commemorating coach Kim Mulkey's 700th career win. Final Four Most Outstanding Player Angel Reese and Mulkey shared a long embrace captured by television cameras. The Tigers made their rounds around the Pete Maravich Assembly Center to greet fans, fresh off a game full of high-fives, chest bumps, empathetic celebrations and hugs. Mulkey later arrived at the postgame news conference drenched after having been doused with water in a PMAC locker-room celebration.
As the calendar turns to December, the defending champions will look to hold on to the high of Thursday and leave behind a tumultuous November: The Tigers dropped their season opener to then-No. 20 Colorado, saw sophomore Sa'Myah Smith suffer a season-ending knee injury last week, and, most notably, were without Reese for four games for unspecified reasons. While the Virginia Tech game marked Reese's first contest back, junior guard Kateri Poole is still away from the team, having last played against Southeastern Louisiana.
On a stage where LSU and Reese had a lot to prove to those unsure of how they'd look -- against stiff competition, without Smith, with Reese back in the fold -- the Tigers showed how, even after a rocky first month, even as they're still a work in progress, you can't count LSU out as a national title contender.
After a slow first quarter, the Tigers took control of the game on both ends of the floor. They didn't look like the same team that struggled so mightily defensively early in the season: The Buffaloes scored 92 points on 53.2% shooting (43.5% from 3) in the season opener, but LSU played with much better energy, physicality and toughness on that end of the floor Thursday, holding the Hokies to a 40.6% clip and a season-low 4-for-21 shooting from 3 (Georgia Amoore in particular was held to 1-for-9). Their six assists on 26 made shots were also by far a season-worst mark.
Despite being without Smith (who was averaging 7.6 rebounds per game before her injury), Reese, DePaul transfer Aneesah Morrow and sophomore Flau'jae Johnson took care of the boards, collectively beating the Hokies, 32-29. The team overall was plus-14 on the glass and used that to score 17 second-chance points.
Reese didn't have her most dominant shooting night (5-for-10 from the floor) but was a force early on with five rebounds in the first 10 minutes and got to the free throw line 16 times overall. The 2023 Final Four MOP finished just short of a double-double with 19 points and 9 rebounds.
But, as she said postgame, there are others capable of propelling LSU, not just when Reese was absent but even with her on the floor. That was what was always supposed to be the beauty of this new-look LSU team.
On Thursday, it was Morrow and freshman Mikaylah Williams who took over. Morrow followed up her stellar game against Virginia with a 19-point, 15-rebound effort, while making her presence felt defensively on two-time ACC Player of the Year Elizabeth Kitley and coming away with three steals and two blocks. Williams, meanwhile, showed yet again why she's considered one of the most exciting prospects in the game, compiling 20 points (9-for-15 shooting), 6 rebounds and 5 assists.
Even setting aside the emotion surrounding the matchup, the win was massive for practical reasons: LSU doesn't have any marquee nonconference games remaining, and after the Colorado loss, this was as close to a must-win as it gets from a non-league-play résumé-building perspective. Of course the SEC will come with its own challenges -- South Carolina remains the group to beat there. But if LSU collectively keeps things going in the right direction after Thursday, the Tigers will be a team no one wants to face in March.
Here are some other takeaways from this week's ACC/SEC Challenge, which ended in a 7-7 tie:
Virginia Tech is still a work in progress
Expectations were high for the Virginia Tech Hokies after their Final Four run this past spring, but to start this season they haven't picked up from where they left off in February and March. Aside from Thursday's high-profile meeting, Virginia Tech fell to Iowa (its only other ranked opponent so far) the first week of November and last week narrowly pulled out wins over Tulane and Kansas by a combined seven points.
Some of the Hokies' struggles reflect the impactful graduation losses of key players Kayana Traylor and Taylor Soule. They are also still incorporating several newcomers, which takes time. Against LSU, though, their offensive process often stalled, or sometimes they simply couldn't seem to hit makeable shots. They failed to keep up defensively after the first quarter and dealt with foul trouble. And they were handily bested on the glass, 43-29. Georgia Amoore (25 points) had to put the team on her back to keep things competitive, but aside from her and Elizabeth Kitley (who fouled out with 4:35 left in the game), who else is going to step up for the Hokies, particularly if either or both of their stars have off nights?
The LSU game was Virginia Tech's final major nonconference test, so all eyes will turn to how it fares in an ubercompetitive ACC. That's when the Hokies picked up steam and started their run to Dallas last year. Will this season follow a similar script?
No. 1 South Carolina shoots .545 from behind the arc as four players score in double figures while Kamilla Cardoso grabs 16 boards in the 65-58 win vs. the Tar Heels.
South Carolina passed its first real test
The South Carolina-North Carolina showdown at Carmichael Arena had all the elements of a potential upset brewing: an interstate rivalry, a raucous sellout crowd and an early Tar Heels lead. In fact, North Carolina's 11-point edge early in the second period was the most the Gamecocks had trailed all season, and they actually played from behind the majority of the game.
And yet, Dawn Staley's team -- still rather inexperienced collectively and in some cases individually -- didn't flinch. Behind reenergized defense, they won each quarter after the first, and in clawing back extended the program's streak of coming back to win each of the past nine instances when they've fallen behind by double digits. That's an incredible stat considering it dates back to November 2021 and was largely achieved by their historic Freshies class. But on Thursday their new players in new roles showed they were up to par. Bree Hall and Te-Hina Paopao were huge, knocking down 6 of their 10 3-point attempts. Kamilla Cardoso was neutralized offensively but still made an impact, with 16 rebounds and four blocks. Chloe Kitts got her shot going in the second half, and Ashlyn Watkins was aggressive in 18 minutes off the bench.
Staley said afterward that her team showed how young it is early on, and while that might be true, the players reversed course over the final 30 minutes and held steady to come away with the win -- a positive sign for the still-evolving Gamecocks.
UNC 'down' but not out
The North Carolina Tar Heels were trending downward heading into Thursday's South Carolina matchup, having lost to Kansas State and Florida Gulf Coast in the Gulf Coast Showcase. Even though they couldn't get across the finish line against the Gamecocks, Courtney Banghart has a lot to like about how her team -- which led for 21:44 -- executed against the nation's top team. Defensively, the Heels held South Carolina 40 points under its season average on 39% shooting. They got big contributions from Alyssa Ustby (18 points, 12 rebounds) and Maria Gakdeng (8 points, 10 rebounds), both of whom helped the Tar Heels win the battle on the boards 45-39. To be a force in the ACC, they'll need to get their offense going -- a more involved Lexi Donarski hitting from the arc would certainly help. Nonetheless, Thursday showed UNC is well poised to make noise come January.
Despite holding on to the lead for nearly the entire game, the Lady Vols suffer a 74-69 loss due to a flurry of Fighting Irish free throws in the final moments.
Notre Dame is a tough out, even short-handed
No. 18 Notre Dame had every reason to lose Wednesday's matchup at No. 20 Tennessee. Olivia Miles (who has yet to play this season after suffering a knee injury in late February), Sonia Citron (out for at least a few weeks with a knee sprain) and Cassandre Prosper were all out. The Irish fell behind by 16 early in the third quarter, at which point they had a 4.1% chance of winning, according to ESPN's win probability metric. And yet they outscored the Lady Vols 49-31 over the final 20 minutes to pull off an improbable 74-69 victory.
Freshman star Hannah Hidalgo didn't have to single-handedly take over for the Irish, either; she struggled with her shot most of the night (5-for-17 from the field, 13 points). But behind a better collective defensive effort, 15 points apiece from Maddy Westbeld and Natalija Marshall (off the bench), plus the go-ahead shot from KK Bransford, Hidalgo's quiet night wasn't fatal to the team's chances. The Irish were down 12 at the half and ended up tying the program mark for largest halftime deficit in a comeback road win over the past 25 seasons, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
Notre Dame's long-term ceiling will be heavily determined by when Miles and Citron return, but the effort was a sign Niele Ivey's squad is still a top contender in the ACC and tough to beat on any given night.
What to watch this weekend: Jimmy V Women's Classic
No. 1 South Carolina at Duke
1 p.m. ET Sunday, ABC
After Thursday's big win over UNC, the Gamecocks will face another defensive-minded ACC program in the Triangle when they play at Duke on Sunday. The Blue Devils showed their potential a few weeks back by -- despite having just lost to Davidson the game before -- taking current No. 3 Stanford to overtime in Palo Alto before ultimately falling by three. But top-ranked South Carolina, now battle-tested after its close win over the Tar Heels, will pose an entirely different challenge. Sophomore Ashlon Jackson has taken a big step forward this season for Kara Lawson's squad, leading Duke in scoring (13.0 PPG) and coming away with 18 points Thursday in the Blue Devils' 72-65 overtime win at Georgia for in ACC/SEC Challenge.
3 p.m. ET Sunday, ABC
The Longhorns enter the matchup behind an undefeated 8-0 start, but given they've played only one Power 5 team (Arizona State), the Huskies will be their toughest opponent yet. UConn, which has been without Azzi Fudd (season-ending ACL injury) and Caroline Ducharme (day-to-day, neck spasms), is still looking to establish its identity after a 1-1 split in the Cayman Islands, losing to No. 2 UCLA by 11 and beating Kansas by eight.
The matchup of UConn's Paige Bueckers and Texas' Rori Harmon will be something to watch in the backcourt (neither played in the teams' meeting last season due to injury), as well as the battle down low between post players Aaliyah Edwards and Taylor Jones. The 6-foot-4 Longhorns senior is coming off a career night versus Oral Roberts, when she scored 27 points (11-for-11 shooting) and corralled 16 rebounds.
No. 16 Ohio State at No. 20 Tennessee
5 p.m. ET Sunday, ESPN
Tennessee dropped a heartbreaker Wednesday at Thompson-Boling Arena, relinquishing a 16-point lead and losing to Notre Dame, but the Lady Vols don't have much time to dwell on it. The Buckeyes -- who last season advanced to their first Elite Eight since 1993 -- might have lost some of their luster when they fell to JuJu Watkins' USC in their season opener, but they're never a team to overlook and will be eager to snag a résumé-building win.
The Lady Vols are 1-3 this season against ranked teams, although all but one of those contests have been without star Rickea Jackson, who's listed as "day to day" with a lower leg injury but has not suited up since Nov. 9.