Louisiana State Coach Kim Mulkey had been trying to temper expectations all season.
She had added nine new players. Who knew how they would jell? In her second year coaching at L.S.U., nobody should expect a national championship, she argued.
But there was Mulkey in Sunday’s national championship game, clad in a sequin pantsuit that looked like something between a disco ball and an exploded glitter bomb, leading the third-seeded Tigers to their first women’s basketball championship with a convincing victory, 102-85, over Iowa and its superstar sharpshooter, Caitlin Clark. The Tigers’ 102 points were the most in a Division I women’s title game. Iowa’s 85 was the most in a loss.
The Tigers, behind the towering, smack-talking forward Angel Reese and a surprise shooting spark from Jasmine Carson, brought Clark and college basketball’s most exciting show to a screeching stop, ending one of the most electrifying individual runs in recent tournament history.
Clark, the consensus national player of the year, had caught the attention of the country with her N.B.A.-range shooting, her crisp passing and her visible emoting in celebration, frustration and competitive passion.
The Tigers celebrated at midcourt while freshman guard Flau’jae Johnson, who also raps, had one of her songs playing throughout the arena in Dallas. Johnson held the trophy and rapped her lyrics while waving her arms.
“Year 2, and hoisting this trophy is crazy,” Mulkey told the crowd. The N.C.A.A. championship is Mulkey’s fourth as a head coach, moving her to third on the career list. Mulkey also won a title as a player with Louisiana Tech in 1982 and one as an assistant coach at the school. Mulkey said she “lost” it with about 90 seconds remaining Sunday, bursting into tears.
“That’s really not like me until that final buzzer goes off, but I knew we were going to hold on to win this game,” Mulkey said through tears.
Reese was named the most outstanding player for the Final Four, finishing with 15 points, 10 rebounds, 5 assists and 3 steals. Carson scored a team-high 22 points, including 21 in the first half on 7-of-7 shooting.
“I had so many goals coming into L.S.U.,” said Reese, who transferred from Maryland ahead of this season. “But I didn’t think I was going to win a national championship in my first year at L.S.U.”
As the game wound down, Reese used one of Clark’s taunts of choice against her, waving a hand in front of her own face, the same move popularized by the professional wrestler John Cena. Reese also tapped her right ring finger while smiling at Clark, pointing out the spot for some fresh championship jewelry.
Reese, who has been criticized all season for her celebrations and taunting, said her showboating had added meaning.
“I don’t fit the narrative,” Reese said. “I don’t fit the box that you all want me to be in. I’m too hood. I’m too ghetto. You all told me that all year. But when other people do it, you all say nothing. So this is for the girls that look like me that’s going to speak up on what they believe in — that’s unapologetically you.”
Alexis Morris, the Tigers point guard, seemed to refer after the game to the massive attention Clark had been getting throughout the tournament.
“Caitlin, you had an amazing game, you a great player,” Morris said. “But, you got to put some respect on L.S.U.”
In her national semifinal, Clark had led the upset of all upsets in this tournament, when she dropped 41 points against then undefeated South Carolina, ending what many thought would be a romp for the Gamecocks to a second straight championship.
One fan during that game prominently waved a sign that read, “In Clark we trust,” as Clark cemented her stardom in front of a record television audience, including the curiously casual and fans who have been following her rise all along.
As the teams shook hands after game, Mulkey told Clark that she was a “generational player.”
The game was tightly officiated. The referees called 37 fouls. Clark had to spend extra time on the bench as she accumulated four fouls, her last on a technical for throwing a ball in frustration after Monika Czinano, Iowa’s second-leading scorer, picked up her fourth foul.
After the game, the referee Lisa Jones said that Clark was charged the technical because she didn’t give the ball back to a referee immediately and Iowa had already received a delay-of-game warning in the third quarter.
Czinano and McKenna Warnock, another Iowa starter, both fouled out. Reese finished with four fouls.
“They wouldn’t even listen to me, there wasn’t even a conversation that could be had,” Iowa Coach Lisa Bluder said of the officials. “When your two seniors have to sit on the bench, those two women didn’t deserve that. And Caitlin getting a T? It’s too bad.”
Before their matchup, Mulkey acknowledged that she had never seen a player like Clark. “She’s going to get her points,” Mulkey said ahead of the final.
And Clark did, scoring 30 points to go with 8 assists, but the Tigers had one of their most superb shooting games all season and their fourth-highest scoring output.
“The biggest thing is it’s really special, I don’t think it’s going to set in for me for quite some time,” Clark, a junior, said. “I want my legacy to be the impact I can have on young kids and the people in the state of Iowa and I hope I brought them a lot of joy this season, I hope this team brought them a lot of joy.”
It started early for L.S.U. when Johnson knocked down the first of the Tigers’ three baskets from 3-point range in the first quarter. That showed the Hawkeyes that they couldn’t approach this matchup in the same way they had toppled South Carolina, by letting them have outside shots.
“Caitlin’s going to have to play some defense,” Morris said.
Morris was proved right. The Tigers led a 3-point barrage, anchored by Carson, who made five in the first half to help build a 17-point halftime lead. The Tigers finished 11 for 17 on 3-pointers — more than keeping up with Iowa’s 14 for 30 — and Morris made all six of her shots in the fourth quarter, scoring 15 in the period as Iowa tried to stop the rout.
“I just was so determined to not let nobody down tonight,” Morris said.
In the final minute, Morris waved goodbye to the Iowa-favoring crowd.
The title followed a tumultuous several years for Mulkey. She came to L.S.U. two seasons ago after winning three championships over 21 seasons at Baylor, including in 2012 in large part because of the star center Brittney Griner.
But when Griner left Baylor, she told ESPN that she was never happy there because she couldn’t be “all the way out” as lesbian. “It feels so good saying it: I am a strong, Black lesbian woman. Every single time I say it, I feel so much better,” she said.
Then Griner was arrested in Russia one year ago, charged with carrying a vape cartridge with hashish oil, and the United States government ruled that she had been wrongfully detained. In September, as Griner was still imprisoned in a Russian penal colony, Mulkey stopped short a reporter who asked for a reaction to Griner’s detention. “You won’t” get one, Mulkey said.
In a news conference last week, a reporter prefaced a question about Griner to Mulkey by saying “she had to ask,” and Mulkey interrupted her and said, “No, you want to ask.”
When asked whether she had talked with Griner since her release through a prisoner swap in December, Mulkey said: “No. But I’m glad she’s back.” She added: “I’m glad she’s safe, she’s sound. I think everybody is. But no, I have not.”
The Tigers’ championship season was reflective of how much college basketball has changed. Mulkey had significant roster turnover, and four of her five starters were transfers. Some coaches, like Mississippi’s Yolett McPhee-McCuin, have described the N.C.A.A.’s transfer portal like going shopping for players.
Mulkey’s portal shopping was effective, as she secured Reese (Maryland), the top available transfer, and others who played key roles in the championship win, including Carson (West Virginia) and LaDazhia Williams (Missouri).
After Mulkey left Baylor, she said, she hadn’t realized how helpful the portal would be in accelerating her success.
“Obviously the transfer portal was good to us at L.S.U.,” Mulkey said. “But you know what, in another week, kids can depart, kids that you wouldn’t expect would depart.”
Coaches like Mulkey, with multiple championships and a proven record of sending players to the W.N.B.A., dominate in the portal; it was Mulkey’s name and track record that helped her land Reese and quickly catapult L.S.U. atop college basketball.
“She is the plan,” Morris said. “Coach Mulkey is the GOAT. All L.S.U. needed was Coach Mulkey.”
Morris, Williams and Carson will be gone next season, as they have exhausted their college eligibility. So Mulkey will likely be going shopping in the portal again this off-season.
But first she’ll party. Glitter and sequin fans beware.