AP Sports

Johnson, Reese lead defending champion LSU past UCLA 78-69 to reach Elite Eight

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — Angel Reese says LSU’s players are embracing the role of “good villains” as they make a run toward repeating as national champions.

Flau’jae Johnson had 24 points and 12 rebounds and Reese put up her 26th double-double of the season Saturday as LSU (31-5) beat UCLA 78-69 in the Sweet 16.

Reese had 16 points and 11 rebounds before fouling out late in the game for the Tigers, who closed the game on a 14-2 run. Aneesah Morrow had 17 points and Mikaylah Williams added 12.

And all the while the Tigers did their usual trash-talking, screaming and waving goodbye to their opponent.

“We’re the good villains,” Reese said. “We’re impacting the game so much and all of us are super competitive and want to win and do whatever it takes to win. We’re just changing the game.”

LSU advanced to the Elite Eight, where it will face Caitlin Clark and Iowa on Monday night in a rematch of last year’s national championship game. The Hawkeyes beat Colorado 89-68 in Saturday’s second semifinal game in the Albany 2 Region.

Lauren Betts had 14 points and 17 rebounds for UCLA, which finished the season at 27-7. Londynn Jones and Gabriela Jaquez also put up 14 points each and Kiki Rice scored 13 for the Bruins.

LSU led by seven points at halftime. But after making just two of their first 20 shots from 3-point range, the Bruins hit four of their next five.

Consecutive 3-pointers from Jones keyed an 11-2 run that gave UCLA the lead at 45-44, and the teams were tied at 48 headed into the fourth quarter.

Jaquez hit a jumper that gave the Bruins a 67-64 lead with 2:46 left. But LSU responded with its run, sparked when Reese blocked a shot by Betts, leading to a drive by Johnson that fouled out Rice.

“I think that I wasn’t scared of the moment,” Johnson said of her game. “I really loved the delight. I love that underdog feeling. Coach Mulkey told me go do what you do, and I did.”

Johnson had two early 3-pointers in the first half. Her spinning baseline drive and layup highlighted an 8-0 LSU spurt that put the Tigers up 25-18.

The Bruins made only one of 16 shots from behind the arc before Jones’ 3-pointer from the left wing just before the halftime buzzer. That ended an 8-0 LSU run and cut what had been a 10-point lead to 34-27.

“Credit to LSU,” Bruins coach Cori Close said. “They got the shots that they wanted down the stretch, and we didn’t get the shots that we wanted. We did not execute the way that we needed to, and that’s one that’s going to sting for a really long time for me.”

MULKEY AND THE MEDIA

The game was played hours after The Washington Post released a much-anticipated story about Mulkey, over which she had threatened legal action, warning it would be a “hit piece.” Instead, it was a profile highlighting both positive and negative aspects of her career and describing her as a colorful personality who “wears feathers almost as dramatically as she ruffles them.”

She wore a loud, multicolored sparkling pantsuit on Saturday. After the game, she said she likely would not read the article but questioned the timing of its release just before her team arrived at the arena.

“Imagine that. Must have thought y’all would look at it, get some clicks or be a distraction,” she said.

BIG PICTURE

LSU: The Tigers are looking to become the first repeat champion since UConn won its fourth straight in 2016.

UCLA: The Bruins have made 19 NCAA Tournament appearances and have been in the Sweet 16 nine times, including three in the last four years. But they have advanced to just two regional finals.

UP NEXT

LSU blew out Iowa 102-85 last year to give the Tigers their first national title. Reese had 15 points and 10 rebounds in that one, famously mocking Clark with a hand gesture Clark had given another opponent at the end of a game and pointed to her own ring finger. Clark finished with 30 points in that loss.

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AP March Madness bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-womens-bracket/ and coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness

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