It's minutes before their first game of the Cayman Islands Classic, and after a day of feasting and frolicking with stingrays, they're ready to get back to the business of basketball.
A fire alarm sounds in the gym, but it alarms no one. Pardon the players. It's been a season full of ear-splitting noise for the defending NCAA champions.
Favored to repeat, LSU suffered an opening-game loss to Colorado. Four games in, superstar Angel Reese was benched. The next game, coach Kim Mulkey pooh-poohed COVID testing as she sniffled through a news conference. Not even an island escape, it seemed, could shut out the noise.
But on Wednesday in Baton Rouge, one fire was seemingly put out when Mulkey announced that Reese was back. After missing four games, Reese will suit up for No. 7 LSU on Thursday night for the first time since Nov. 14, when the Tigers host No. 9 Virginia Tech (9 p.m. ET, ESPN) in a rematch of last year's national semifinal.
But what happens next? Sure, Reese is returning, but the Tigers are a team that looks much different than the one she left. Junior guard Kateri Poole also sat out the Cayman Islands trip and has not rejoined the team. Sophomore forward Sa'Myah Smith is out for the rest of the season after tearing an ACL, MCL and meniscus in the Cayman Islands opener. Transfers Hailey Van Lith and Morrow have emerged as leaders.
How the Tigers pick up the pieces from the past three-plus weeks could determine their championship hopes.
THE BUMPS IN the road this season began almost immediately for LSU. Ranked No. 1 in the preseason, the Tigers dropped their first game (92-78) to then-No. 20 Colorado on Nov. 6. After the game, neither the familiar faces of Reese and Johnson, nor the high-profile transfers of Morrow and Van Lith joined Mulkey at the news conference. Instead, freshman Mikayla Williams, who scored a team-high 17 points, represented the players.
"I'm disappointed and surprised in some of our individual players that I thought would just be tougher and have a little fight and leadership about them," Mulkey said after the loss. "I thought [Williams] and Sa'Myah Smith did all they could. We needed more than those two to have a little bit of fight."
She added: "This is not going to devastate us."
It's hard to argue that point. LSU has won seven straight since. Four of those wins came without Reese. None of those wins, however, have come against ranked opponents, and though the wins have continued, the noise has been loud and the lights bright.
The Reese saga can be traced back to halftime of LSU's fourth game of the season on Nov. 14 against Kent State. Leading the Golden Flashes by two at halftime, the Most Outstanding Player of the 2023 NCAA tournament did not play a minute in the second half. LSU went on to win 109-79. Mulkey said Reese's absence was "a coach's decision." Reese has not returned to the court -- or even the bench -- since.
Mulkey steadfastly refused to elaborate on what led to Reese's absence, the nature of that absence, or when she would return.
"Angel was not in uniform," Mulkey said after Reese missed her first full game on Nov. 17, a 73-50 win against Southeast Louisiana. "Angel is a part of this basketball team, and we hope to see her sooner than later."
After beating Texas Southern 106-47 at home on Nov. 20 in Reese's second consecutive missed game, Mulkey said, "You always have to deal with locker room issues. Sometimes you don't know about it. Sometimes you want to know more than you're entitled to know. I'm going to protect my players, always. They are more important."
"You will know when she comes back," Mulkey said on Nov. 24 following LSU's first game in the Cayman Islands. "Obviously she's not with us."
Reese may not have been with the Tigers in the Cayman Islands, but her absence opened the door for someone else.
ANEESAH MORROW CATCHES an entry pass on the edge of the paint. It's the opening moments of the fourth quarter in LSU's game against Virginia in the Cayman Islands. Smith had been injured in the previous game and was on the bench wearing a brace that extended down her right leg, leaving Morrow to anchor the front court. She may be listed as a guard, but the 6-foot-1 junior is at home in the lane.
With the ball in her hands, Morrow spins toward the middle. She explodes upward and finishes at the rim through body contact for an and-1. In this back-and-forth game, whenever LSU has needed a bucket, Morrow has been the one to get it. She finishes the game with 37 points and 16 rebounds while shooting 15-for-25 from the floor. LSU escapes with a 76-73 victory. Van Lith adds 12 points and five assists.
"She and Hailey bring experience to our team right now," Mulkey said after the game. "Having played at the college level is helping us right now. What they don't know about the system, they know about the toughness of the game at this level."
Morrow was named to the all-tournament team after dominating in LSU's two games, totaling 65 points and 26 rebounds. She started the season coming off the bench.
When asked whether she expected to be in the position of carrying LSU, Morrow said, "Um, no. At DePaul, I was consistent, so that's the same thing I'm trying to do here."
Coming out of the locker room following the win over Virginia, Mulkey exuded pride in what LSU had accomplished that afternoon.
"You've got some competitors out there," she said. "You've got some kids that don't listen to outside noise. You got some kids that just want to win. They came to LSU to do what they did here and they did it under unforeseen circumstances. That just makes me feel so good about them."
The good cheer remained the next day. In a purple LSU top and jeans, Mulkey relaxed in a seat at the gate in the Grand Cayman airport. A woman known for her theatrical outfits and wild sideline gestures and expressions was decidedly understated as she waited to board the team's charter flight back to Baton Rouge. She leaned back and let out a big yawn before standing up and saying hello to Van Lith's family. On her way over to greet them, she squeezed UConn assistant coach Chris Dailey's shoulder. UConn's charter gate was right next to LSU's.
She was smiling and happy, still chatting about the gutsy win over Virginia from the day before. The question was whether the sunshine and good vibes would travel back to Baton Rouge once the Tigers left the Grand Cayman bubble.
And when, exactly, would Reese be back?
MULKEY NEARLY BURSTS through the door to her news conference on Wednesday afternoon in Baton Rouge. She's teeming with energy. "I've got an opening statement," she says, taking her seat. "Angel's back, Kateri's not, and Sa'Myah's done for the year."
Mulkey still did not elaborate on why Reese hasn't been with the team, or why Poole still is not. But she shared more about why she has not commented on the details of whatever has caused their absences.
"The sacredness of that locker room, we don't let parents in that locker room, we don't let people in that locker room," she said. "There is a sacredness to a locker room, and I'm from that school. What's in that locker room stays in that locker room."
One fire will be put out when Reese returns to the court on Thursday night. Mulkey, however, is not convinced there was even a blaze to begin with.
"I'm waiting for y'all to get past it," Mulkey said. "We're past it. We were past it after it happened."
On Thursday night, Angel Reese has a chance to prove that's true.