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Flau’Jae Johnson, LSU rally for Sweet 16 victory over UCLA

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ALBANY, N.Y. — With 6 seconds left and the game finally in hand following a wild fourth quarter, LSU guard Flau’Jae Johnson looked to the LSU crowd and gave a thumbs-up.

Only a few seconds later, a 78-69 Sweet 16 victory over UCLA secure, she looked at the UCLA bench and its crowd, too, gesturing that this day belonged to her Tigers.

There were plenty of reasons for the emotion. Johnson essentially willed her team to win with their season on the line, scoring 24 points and 12 rebounds. There was jawing on the court between players, as foul calls piled up for both teams. Then there appeared to be words exchanged between Angel Reese and UCLA coach Cori Close after Reese fouled out.

It all amounted to a feeling afterward from the LSU players that, in their view, translated into nobody wanting to see them win.

Again.

Afterward, Johnson said she didn’t say anything specific to the UCLA crowd. “It was just their fans talking,” she said. “It’s just regular basketball stuff. Stuff like that gets heated in the moment.”

Reese was asked about what happened between she and Close after fouling out late in the game. “She told me good game. It was another coach that was talking a little crazy.” When asked to to be more specific, Reese said, “Next question.”

Close took umbrage with those comments in response, saying, “That’s not who we are. I don’t want to say anything about Angel. I will only speak to what the Bruins are, and the Bruins are classy, speaking life into each other. We would never do that, and especially it would never come from one of my coaches.

“Maybe she heard something mistakenly, but I can tell you — and I’m not saying anything about Angel, I’m just saying from what comes from my camp, absolutely not.”

Tensions were certainly high as the fourth quarter bounced between both teams. LSU had built a 10-point lead in the first half, but UCLA slowly started to chip away during the third and fourth quarters after finally hitting shots that were not going in earlier in the game.

UCLA led 67-66 with 1:46 remaining before LSU took control for good. With the season on the line, Reese and Johnson drew critical fouls that ended up being difference makers. Reese made her free throws with 1:46 to go to give LSU the lead. Johnson made hers with 1:33 to build on it.

From there, the Tigers had control — especially after Johnson drove to the rim for a layup with 44.4 seconds left to extend the lead to four. The LSU fans roared. The Tigers would survive to advance to the Elite Eight — keeping alive their chances to repeat.

“When Angel fouled out, it was like, Flau, you’ve got to step up,” Johnson said. “I wasn’t scared of the moment. Coach Mulkey told me go do what you do, and I did.”

On the same day a long-awaited Washington Post profile on Kim Mulkey finally published, and the Los Angeles Times posted an article that portrayed the UCLA-LSU matchup as a “reckoning” between good versus evil, the Tigers played with the same fight down the stretch that its head coach has shown since she issued a preemptive statement last week about how she would defend herself against what she believed would be a “hit piece.”

LSU certainly opened the game with more of an edge, but when they went into the locker room at halftime with a seven-point lead, it did not seem as if an extra bit of fight would be required.

From the start of the game, Johnson was the best player on the court, a sweet spin move over Kiki Rice enough to get her to pose in front of the LSU section and ask for more noise as an exclamation point to a terrific first half.

UCLA started to come back, slowly until the game was tied. Then the lead changed. On and on it went until the final minute and a half, when the Tigers were simply too much for the Bruins to handle. Close lamented the fact her team allowed 30 fourth-quarter points, and could not make layups in crucial moments with the game on the line.

“We had a lead with a minute 46 and we gave up lay-ups and free throws, and we missed lay-ups and free throws down the stretch, and ultimately I’m responsible,” Close said. “I will play this over and over in my head and try to figure out from my perspective how I could have led them better or different. But you’re not going to win games in this level giving up 30 points in the fourth quarter.”

Lauren Betts, who was held to 14 points, was visibly upset afterward saying, “I think we are the better team, and I thought that we just didn’t show up today.”

On the other side, Reese was limited for stretches in foul trouble, and finished with 16 points and 11 rebounds. Johnson led all scorers. Just before leaving the court for the locker room, she came back to the LSU section one more time, smiling her biggest smile.

Johnson made sure to let everyone know during her postgame press conference she had one more rebound than Reese. “Just one,” Reese said.

But when asked about her teammates stepping up, Reese had plenty to say.

“Apparently people thought we were just a bunch of individuals so we took that personal, and we do have stars on our team,” Reese said. “Some nights it’s me, some nights it’s (Aneesah Morrow), some nights it’s Flau’jae. It’s so many different players on any given night, and people don’t realize that.

“We have a purpose, and our purpose is to get to the championship, and we don’t care who scores. The best team won tonight. Also the best individuals on the team won, as well. Let’s get that straight.”

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