When you’re putting together a puzzle, you begin by zooming out and seeing all the pieces you have. It is here when you’re able to see how each piece is unique—the specific edges every individual piece has, what colors they hold and how those factors play into the final image you’re trying to put together. That’s what it’s been like for the LSU women’s basketball program. Tigers head coach Kim Mulkey has been meticulously putting together the pieces to what is one of the most exciting teams in the country.
But there are two pieces that have led this team through the whole season: Angel Reese and Flau’jae Johnson.
It’s a bright, sunny Tuesday afternoon in Baton Rouge. Walking past Tiger Stadium, which resembles more of an NFL stadium than a college one, to the spaceship-looking Pete Maravich Assembly Center (better known as the PMAC), there’s a sense of grandeur to just about everything you pass. As Angel and Flau’jae arrive for their SLAM shoot, they walk past a sign that reads “Respect the Past, Embrace the Future” on the practice facility walls, which are adorned with images of LSU greats like Seimone Augustus and Sylvia Fowles.
The air is refreshing, the atmosphere is calm, a complete contrast to what it was like just a few weeks prior.
The PMAC was packed and fans were roaring so loud that there was no point in trying to communicate on the court. LSU was facing Arkansas and it was a tightly contested back and forth game. There were about five minutes left and LSU had just extended the lead to 10. As Angel and Flau’jae made their way down the court to get back on defense, Arkansas’ Chrissy Carr drove down the baseline and dished out to the free-throw line. Somehow, as Angel closed in on help defense, she slid out of her shoe. As she tried to quickly pick up her shoe and get the referees’ attention, the Razorbacks’ Samara Spencer drove into the lane. Angel didn’t hesitate to toss her Nike Freak 4 to her left hand so that she could get the block with her right. The block was emphatic, sending Spencer to the floor. Angel stood above her screaming “GIMME THAT SHIT!” while still holding her sneaker with her left hand. Flau’jae was right next to her hyping her up. The PMAC was going wild.
“I don’t know how I got out [of] my shoe,” Angel tells SLAM. “I know if I took that play off and they had scored, the coach would have been upset with me because I didn’t get to help defense. I was trying to get the ref’s attention to be like, Can I put my shoe on? She didn’t respond to me. So, I just picked [up] the shoe, I put it in my other hand and I just blocked the shot. I was in that mode.”
It was a viral highlight that amassed millions of views across social and TV. It’s a highlight that perfectly exemplifies the type of showtime basketball that this program brings every time they step on the floor. Top to bottom, the roster is filled with dawgs. In a season that was supposed to be a “rebuild year” after adding nine newcomers last summer, they far exceeded what anyone thought this team could achieve.
“We don’t have expectations,” Reese says in early February. “We’re not supposed to be 23-0 right now.”
Just a few days after our shoot, the Tigers suffered their first loss of the season at the hands of the reigning national champs, the South Carolina Gamecocks. But what makes this team so scary is that they have no fear, because they’re not supposed to be here. Just two years ago, no one would’ve believed you if you said LSU would be a top team.
In 2021, Reese was trying to find her way as a freshman at Maryland, coming off the bench, while Johnson was barely ranked in the top 100 in her recruiting class. And Kim Mulkey? She was still at Baylor.
After 21 years of building Baylor’s women’s basketball program, which amassed three national championships and counts a plethora of WNBA greats among its alumni, Mulkey was ready for something new, and in April of 2021, she was officially announced as LSU’s new head coach.
“This doesn’t just happen with a phone call,” the Hall of Fame coach shared during her introductory press conference. “It takes a lot of people pulling a lot of strings and committing to women’s basketball.”
“I want you to look at those banners,” Mulkey continued, as she looked up at the rafters of the PMAC. “Final Four, Final Four, Final Four, Final Four, Final Four. Nowhere on there does it say National Champion. That’s what I came here to do.”
And with that, the new era of LSU women’s basketball began.
The first order of business for the new Tigers head coach was to get acquainted with the pieces she had inherited while also lighting a fire on the recruiting trail to start building the winning culture she expected.
Around the same time, Flau’jae Johnson was wrapping up her junior year. At the time, she was more known for rapping than hooping. Just three years earlier, a 14-year-old Flau’jae stepped on stage at NBC’s America’s Got Talent and shocked the world with her bars.
“I did a song about gun violence, it’s called ‘Guns Down,’” the Savannah, GA, native explained on stage to Simon Cowell in 2018. “My dad’s name was Camouflauge, he was an up-and-coming rapper, he was gonna be signed to Universal Records, but two days before he was gonna sign the contract, he was murdered, and my mom was pregnant with me. My whole goal is to continue my father’s legacy,” she told the AGT judges as she wiped tears from her eyes.
She went on to give a performance that went viral and earned her the Golden Buzzer, and at the same time that her music career was taking off, she was hooping, too, although she wasn’t seeing the same level of success. Yet.
“My journey in basketball is unbelievable,” Johnson tells us. “Like, I came out of my junior year and I wasn’t ranked, I didn’t have any offers.”
That summer, the 5-10 guard joined the Atlanta-based FBC BounceNation21 AAU program to get on the grassroots travel circuit, and she quickly started making some noise. After just a few months, she went from unranked to No. 55 in her class.
“I don’t think she realized how good she was,” Sprayberry coach Kellie Avery told the Washington Post last summer. “She does so much in her off time with her music that I don’t think basketball had balanced out until her sophomore year. Then she was like, Maybe I could do both. She got on the right AAU team this year, and it showed.”
She then got a coveted invite to the 2021 SLAM Summer Classic and really showed out. As the lowest ranked player in the game, she knew there were haters doubting her skills. Puzzled people asked, Isn’t she the girl from The Rap Game? when she arrived in New York for the weekend. But just a couple days later, they not only knew Flau’jae the rapper but also Flau’jae the hooper, when she walked away with the game’s Terrence Clarke MVP award.
“Man, that was the game I was like, Oh, this my opportunity,” the LSU guard remembers. “I always said just give me an opportunity, I’m gonna make it happen. I saw they had all the top kids—Kiki Rice and Janiah Barker—that’s all I needed to see, because I knew that they were the top in my class. So I was like, Oh, yeah, I gotta go up there and dominate, and I came out MVP. I did what I had to do. I was working because I knew when I get that call, I’m gonna be ready.”
Many college coaches took notice that summer, but one stood out: Kim Mulkey.
Within just a few months of receiving a list of offers to different schools, Flau’jae committed to LSU in the only way Flau’jae “Big Four” Johnson could—with a track titled “All Falls Down,” featuring Baton Rouge’s Lil Boosie and a music video with special words from Mike WiLL Made-It.
“I don’t think I would want to have experiences at any other college,” the freshman phenom shares with a smile. “Because it feels like home.”
She went on to finish her senior year of high school as the No. 6 guard in her class, and at the time of our shoot, was the Tigers’ second leading scorer behind Angel, averaging 13 points and 6.5 rebounds per game, while shooting 47 percent from the field.
In Flau’jae Johnson, Mulkey found her very first puzzle piece.
While Johnson was finding her way through the recruiting process, Angel was trying to find her place at the collegiate level.
Reese was the No. 2 overall player in the Class of 2020 coming out of the DMV. Being near family was a big factor for her, and she chose to play close to home at the University of Maryland.
By her sophomore year, Reese was averaging an impressive 17.8 points and 10.6 rebounds per game, but something didn’t feel right. At the end of April, Angel sent the NCAA hoops world into chaos after announcing that she would be transferring out of Maryland. She immediately became the top player in the transfer portal.
“I actually didn’t want to be in the portal that long,” the National Player of the Year candidate recalls. “I think I was in the portal for maybe 12 days, if that. I didn’t want to deal with it.”
During those near two weeks, Angel and her family went through the process of setting up visits and speaking with coaches, but LSU wasn’t on the list of potential schools.
“Well, technically, I didn’t think I was coming to LSU,” the 6-3 forward says. “Kateri [Poole] was the one that called me to ask about LSU. And I was like, I don’t know, I already have visits set up. I’m not sure. So, I don’t think Coach thought she could get me because she already thought I was going somewhere else. So, when she called me, I was like, Alright, I’ll take a visit, I guess, and, happily, she was the first visit I had set up. After I came down here for my visit, I canceled the rest of my visits. It was wrapped.”
Angel was looking for a family outside of basketball, one that she could feel at home with beyond the court. She also wanted a program that would help her grow as a person just as much as a player.
“I just wanted to figure out who really is Angel Reese,” she says. “Coming to LSU, I feel like I figured out who I am. I’m able to be myself here. It’s just something I really love.”
It’s clear to see that now in the way she’s playing this season, putting up Kareem Abdul-Jabbar-type numbers— averaging 23.4 points and 15.5 rebounds a game, at the time of our shoot. The “Bayou Barbie” (which she’s dubbed and trademarked) is appointment TV, making viral highlight plays seemingly every night of the week.
In Angel Reese, Kim Mulkey found her second puzzle piece.
With a host of other notable transfers—Kateri Poole, LaDazhia Williams, Jasmine Carson and Last-Tear Poa—along with the players who stayed, including Alexis Morris and Sa’Myah Smith, the Tigers have the best show in college basketball. But it’s taken time to hone everyone’s skills, as every player finds their role on this team.
“We just really enjoy playing with each other,” Flau’jae says. “Once we’re in our rhythm and we’re bouncing off each other, Angel doing her thing, Jaz hitting threes, it’s like we’re really going. Like, we really get the flow on the floor [going] and nobody can roll with it.”
And that comes from this roster putting in the work from top to bottom, pushing each other, day in and day out.
“This team is really competitive,” the Bayou Barbie says. “We can critique each other, and I think that’s just something that you don’t really see, being able to critique each other and not take it personal. It’s just fun how we compete against each other, so by the time we compete on the court, it’s just, like, we’re all together.”
It’s a team no one expected to be among the best going into March. The Tigers had a lot of doubters at the start of the season, with many shaking their heads at a perceived easy out-of-conference schedule.
“People are going to say our out- of-conference schedule was terrible,” Angel says while laughing. “That’s fine. Y’all can say that. But it’s the Free Smoke Tour. I don’t think anybody on the team is scared of anything.”
“They mistake our confidence for arrogance,” Flau’jae quickly adds. “We’re gonna pop it regardless.”
There’s truly nothing scarier than a team that has nothing to lose.
Angel and Flau’jae are the puzzle pieces that were needed to put together this new era of LSU basketball. When those lights come on, you know it’s showtime.
Portraits by Marcus Stevens
Johnson hair: Dinesha Wells; Reese hair: Devon Williams at Divine Allure; Makeup: Diamond Nikole Standifer
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