Reese's double-double, Johnson's scoring, lifts LSU over MTSU 83-56 in NCAA Tournament's 2nd round

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — LSU coach Kim Mulkey pledged that she wouldn't let an impending Washington Post “hit piece” about her derail the defending national champion Tigers during the women's NCAA Tournament.

A dominant second-half surge, led by star forward Angel Reese and dynamic guard Flau'Jae Johnson, proved Mulkey right — at least for now.

Reese's 20 points and 11 rebounds and Johnson's 21 points helped third-seeded LSU pull away for an 83-56, second-round victory over No. 11 seed Middle Tennessee on Sunday.

“Listen, man, we’re not going to let one sleazy reporter distract us from what we’re trying to do. Absolutely not,” Mulkey said. “My kids didn’t even know I said that yesterday. That team is not involved in this. They were in shock when they saw all that on the internet.”

Mulkey grabbed headlines when she railed against the Washington Post and even threatened legal action.

Reese said Sunday that she didn't know anything about that, but other teammates did.

“Coach Mulkey's had our back all year, so we've got to have coach Mulkey's back,” said forward Aneesah Morrow, who scored 19 points. “We've got to play hard and for one another — and that's as simple as it is.”

LSU trailed by nine in the third quarter before surging to a comfortable second-half lead and ended the Blue Raiders' 20-game winning streak.

“I didn’t want to let my team down,” said Reese, who had a long embrace with Mulkey on the sideline when she checked out in the final minutes.

Reese also noted that she might have played her last game on LSU's home court because she hasn't decided whether to turn pro after this season.

“So, I did whatever it takes to win," Reese said. "And me and coach have that kind of relationship where she can get on me and talk to me, like, ‘I need you,’ and give me that encouragement that I need.”

MTSU (30-5) led 41-32 and looked primed to widen the gap when Reese tripped over a fallen teammate on an attempted layup and crashed to the court, sending the Blue Raiders on a 5-on-4 break the other way.

But Jalynn Gregory’s open 3 bounced off the back rim to LSU guard Last-Tear Poa, who fired the ball down court where Reese had just gotten up and made an uncontested layup.

That play spawned a 10-0 run, fueled in part by Mikaylah Williams’ pull-up jumper in transition and her left corner 3, which put the Tigers back in front 42-41.

“One possession can change everything,” Reese said. “That could have been the possession.”

Later in the quarter, Johnson forced a turnover by tying up MTSU's Ta'Mia Scott, followed that up with a 3 and later hit a bail-out, fall-away jumper as the shot clock expired.

“Everybody was going to have to suck it up and get down and do whatever it takes,” said Johnson, whose triumphant gesticulations after each big play stirred the packed crowd into a deafening frenzy.

“We just had energy. I mean, I feel like everybody felt that shift," Johnson continued. "My stomach was bubbling. I said, ‘I ain’t going home.’”

LSU wound up outscoring Middle Tennessee 27-8 during the final 8:22 of the third quarter to take a 59-49 lead on Reese's layup. The Tigers went up by as many as 30 points after that.

“If they decide to play the rest of the year like they did the second half, they’re going to be tough,” MTSU coach Rick Insell said. “I’ve watched a lot of film on them. That second half was about as good as I’ve seen them play this year. ... If they decide to do that, they’re going to have another chance to hang another flag.”

MTSU 6-foot-6 starting center Anastasiia Boldyreva scored nine points and blocked three shots, but fouled out just before the end of third quarter.

Savannah Wheeler, the Conference USA Player of the Year, scored 21 and Scott scored 15 for Middle Tennessee, which lost for the first time since Dec. 30.

Williams added 16 for LSU, which jumped out to a 24-15 lead before slipping in the second quarter. The Blue Raiders outrebound the Tigers 25-18 in the first half and led 36-32 at halftime.

BIG PICTURE:

MTSU: The Blue Raiders fell to 0-5 all-time in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

LSU: LSU outscored the Blue Raiders 30-18 in the paint. The Tigers also shot 41.7% (5 of 12) from 3-point range.

“I thought our energy, I thought our aggressiveness, I thought our effort in the second half wore them down,” Mulkey said. “Even when they got good looks, they didn’t make them.”

UP NEXT:

LSU heads to Albany, New York, for the Albany 2 Region semifinals where they play the winner of UCLA and Creighton. One more victory could potentially pit the Tigers against Iowa and NCAA Division I all-time leading scorer Caitlin Clark in a rematch of last year's national title game.

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