By RON HIGGINS, Journal Sports
LSU’s defending NCAA women’s basketball champions better hope the saying “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” is true.
The Tigers’ preseason No. 1 ranking lasted the first 40 minutes of the 2023-24 season as No. 20 Colorado recorded a dominant 92-78 victory Monday night in the nationally-televised (TNT) Hall of Fame Series game in Las Vegas’ T-Mobile Arena.
Playing with the fire and flare LSU showed last season en route to winning its first national championship, a veteran Colorado squad dissected the Lady Tigers’ defense with efficient offensive execution and then played physical defense and shut down LSU’s vaunted inside game.
“This game was everything we wanted,” Colorado head coach JR Payne said. “We wanted a challenge and we wanted to take our team into the national spotlight so I can show the world how great they are. I’m really proud of how we played, proud of how we competed and it’s a great start to the year.”
Tigers third-year head coach Kim Mulkey was smoldering about her team’s lack of toughness. LSU became the first defending national champion to lose its season opener the following year since UConn lost to Louisiana Tech (with Mulkey as a Tech assistant) to open the 1995-96 season.
“I’m disappointed and surprised in some individual players that I thought would just be tougher and just have a little fight and leadership about them,” Mulkey said. “I’m not going to call out players.
“I’m just going to tell you that you live with poor shooting, you live with just a tough night offensively. What I don’t live with is just guts and fight and physical play. And you got just that dog in you. And I just didn’t think we had that tonight.”
The Colorado trio of Frida Formann (a career-high 27 points), Aaronette Vonleh (24 points) and Jaylyn Sherrod (19 points) combined for 70 points and for most of the game outscored the Tigers by themselves.
First-team All-America junior forward Angel Reese (15 points, 12 rebounds) and sophomore guard Flau’jae Johnson (3 points, 1 rebound), LSU’s two returning starters, combined for just 18 points and 13 rebounds.
The only LSU player who looked comfortable from start to finish was true freshman guard Mikaylah Williams. The former Parkway star started and scored a team-high 17 points on 8 of 16 field goals (including a 3-pointer) in 31 minutes of playing time.
“I just didn’t want to go down without a fight,” Williams said. “Just giving everything I had at the moment and trying to see what could come out of it.”
Mulkey praised Williams and sophomore reserve center Sa’Myah Smith, who scored 16 points and grabbed 5 rebounds in 26 minutes off the bench.
But Mulkey was disappointed with the rest of the team. While she didn’t want to point a finger at individuals, returning starters Reese and Johnson played with no fire while transfers Hailey Van Lith (Louisville) and Annesah Morrow (DePaul) struggled trying to fit in the flow of the game at both ends of the floor.
After a 7-0 run late in the second quarter, Colorado led the last 23½ minutes of the game. It extended its 38-32 halftime lead to 63-51 at the end of the third and built a 22-point margin at 77-55 with 6:08 left to play.
In short, Colorado looked like a veteran team with 88 percent of returning scoring from last season’s Sweet 16 team. It played confident and smooth.
LSU, with Van Lith, Morrow and Williams joining Reese and Johnson in the starting lineup, appeared disjointed and unsure.
The Buffs quickly learned in the first quarter to surround Reese with their defense and Sherrod began continuously beating LSU’s defenders to the basket on the offensive end.
It began a game-long advantage of Colorado finishing drives and making 18 of 28 layups. LSU repeatedly misfired from point-blank range and made 12 of 24 layups.
The fact Colorado outshot LSU from the field 53.2 to 43.9 percent can be credited to the Buffs’ slicing and dicing Princeton-style offense. Colorado scored 33 field goals on 24 assists, a testament to an experienced team knowing how to play together.
As for LSU, Mulkey promised her ultra-talented team will improve, starting with Thursday night’s home opener vs. Queens University of Charlotte. The Royals, a Division 1 school, lost their season opener 91-44 at Ole Miss on Monday.
“I can’t just flip the switch and have all of us on the same page this early in the season,” said Mulkey, who lost a season-opener for just the third time in her 24 years as a head coach. “But I can tell you, it will happen for us. The talent is there. I just don’t know when it will happen that we start playing like that and we’re smoother.
“When we get to practice Wednesday and we pull up the (game) film, it won’t be a fun film session. As we say, it’ll be `a come to Jesus moment.’”
Contact Ron at firstname.lastname@example.org