ALBANY, N.Y. — There was joy, because of course there is when a team survives and advances in March. Flau’jae Johnson, who scored 24 points and willed LSU past UCLA, bounded over toward the Tigers’ family and friends in the stands with a big, bright smile.

But about 15 minutes later, Johnson’s guard was back up as she sat next to Angel Reese and Aneesah Morrow during a postgame news conference. So was Reese’s. Morrow’s, too. Yes, the Tigers were happy to be moving on to the Elite Eight. But they know exactly how the world sees them, and they don’t always appreciate it.

“We’re the good villains,” Reese said. “Everybody wants to beat LSU. Everybody wants to be LSU. Everybody wants to play against LSU. You’ve got to realize, like, we’re not any regular basketball team. Coach (Kim Mulkey) talks about it all the time; she calls us ‘The Beatles.’ People run after our bus. People are coming to our games. You’re seeing sellouts, you’re seeing people buying jerseys, you’re seeing more sellouts than the men.

“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.”

Reese noted that she gets criticized for her modeling, which she likes in addition to basketball. “I can do both,” she said. Johnson regularly gets asked about her second career as a rapper. “Flau’jae can do both.”

“We can all do both,” Reese continued. “That’s what people don’t believe. They don’t think that we’re focused, and we prove every single night when we get between those lines, we’re focused. That’s what we’re worried about.”

“Just being able to have teammates that have my back, have teammates, have coaches just have each other’s back this whole time. I don’t care what the outside (world) thinks,” Reese said. “I know what’s going on in that locker room.”

Before the season and at points during it, many outside the program wondered how it would work — adding Hailey Van Lith from Louisville and Morrow from DePaul — with only one basketball to share. And with a coach who is not afraid to say what she wants about all of it (and not afraid to bench a star, either).

“People always tell us how we should act, how we should dress, how we should talk,” Johnson said. “But there’s never been people who have done this before.”

She’s right. These LSU players have lived on the cutting edge of the name, image and likeness era, balancing their lives as students, athletes and entrepreneurs in a way we’ve never seen.

Mulkey tells them to be who they are, and she says she’ll fight for them. She teed off Saturday on a Los Angeles Times column that said her team represented “evil” against the “good” of UCLA and that the Tigers were “dirty debutantes.”

“How dare people attack kids like that?” Mulkey said. “You don’t have to like the way we play. You don’t have to like the way we trash-talk. You don’t have to like any of that. We’re good with that. But I can’t sit up here as a mother and a grandmother and a leader of young people and allow somebody to say that.”

This is what LSU wanted to talk about after a thrilling, nail-biting win over UCLA on Saturday. It’s what this coach and these players think about and deal with daily. And it’s in large part because of the way this team was introduced to most of America — with last year’s title game, with the taunting, with all the talk (which it backed up).

So it feels similar again to Mulkey and to Reese as they prepare for a rematch against Iowa. They don’t need to be liked, but they demand to be respected. As the Tigers keep winning and chasing a second consecutive national championship, that’s what they’ll expect.

“We won at the highest level in college, and we haven’t had peace,” Reese said. “But I wouldn’t want to change (that to) this day. I wouldn’t want to change where we are right now. I wouldn’t want to change the three letters across my chest because it means something, and I want to be a part of history.”

(Photo of Flau’jae Johnson, left, and Angel Reese: Andy Lyons / Getty Images)


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