No. 3 LSU Advances To Women’s March Madness Sweet 16 Amid Distraction Surrounding Head Coach Kim Mulkey

Reese drives to the basket against Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders center Anastasiia Boldyreva. (Stephen Lew/USA TODAY Sports/Reuters via CNN Newsource)

By Ben Morse and Jacob Lev, CNN

(CNN) — The No. 3 seeded LSU Tigers held off No. 11 Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders to advance to the women’s March Madness Sweet 16 on Sunday, amid distractions surrounding head coach Kim Mulkey.

The defending champions overcame a slow start to easily beat Middle Tennessee 83-56 at Pete Maravich Assembly Center to make the Sweet 16 round for the second straight year.

But, LSU’s March Madness campaign has been overshadowed by a spat between Mulkey and the Washington Post.

Mulkey said a reporter for the newspaper has been attempting to interview her for the last two years. She claims the reporter contacted the school on Tuesday, sending more than a dozen questions to answer by Thursday, as the team was preparing for its first-round game.

While Mulkey has been highly critical of the Washington Post, she has not divulged the nature of the story that the Post has been working on, or why she is attacking the Post for a story that has not published.

A Washington Post spokesperson declined to comment on Mulkey’s remarks, which were made before LSU’s win.

Following the team’s victory on Sunday, Mulkey denied the team’s sluggish first half came as a result of the team being distracted from the off-the-court noise.

“Listen, man, we’re not going to let one sleazy reporter distract us from what we’re trying to do. Absolutely not,” Mulkey said after reaching the 17th Sweet 16 round of her career.

“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.”

The Tigers trailed by four points going into halftime, but came out firing in the second period, galvanized by the defense of guard Hailey Van Lith.

From that, the team’s offense sprung into life, with LSU outscoring Middle Tennessee 51-20 in the second half.

Angel Reese recorded her 14th consecutive double-double – her 25th of the season – with 20 points and 11 rebounds, while Flau’Jae Johnson added 21 points.

Aneesah Morrow also had a double-double with 19 points and 13 rebounds and Mikaylah Williams had 16 points to seal a victory which ended the Blue Raiders’ 20-game winning run.

“I didn’t want to let my team down,” Reese said afterwards. “I didn’t want this to be my last game being here in the PMAC. So I did whatever it takes to win. 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.”

LSU’s qualification for the Sweet 16 is the 16th time the team has done so in the program’s history and the first time since 2013-14 that it has done it in back-to-back seasons.

The Tigers will face either No. 2 UCLA or No. 7 Creighton on Saturday, March 30 in the next round.

After Sunday’s victory, freshman guard Johnson paid tribute to the 12,632 strong crowd in attendance at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center and the inspiration they gave the team.

“I couldn’t hear at one point at PMAC,” Johnson told reporters. “I didn’t hear the play calls. I couldn’t hear what was going on. It was so much fun.

“I love playing here at LSU and everything going on. It was so much fun. Now to be able to advance in my second year here, it’s just amazing. I wish we could take this crowd and bring it everywhere we go, but I know they’re going to come to Albany, and I hope to see everybody in Albany.”

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