GREENVILLE, S.C. — The NCAA tournament puts players into the most pressure-packed situations of their careers. It happened to two players in the final 10 seconds of No. 3 seed LSU’s 66-63 win over No. 2 seed Utah in the Greenville 2 regional semifinal Friday night.
LSU fifth-year senior Alexis Morris made all four of her free throws. Utah sophomore Jenna Johnson missed both of hers, and the Tigers move on to face No. 9 seed Miami in an unexpected women’s basketball regional final Sunday.
The dramatic win puts second-year coach Kim Mulkey in position to make the women’s Final Four with a third program. She made it that far as a player and an assistant coach at Louisiana Tech, winning two NCAA titles, and as a head coach at Baylor, winning three titles.
The Utes had their sights set on reaching the Elite Eight for the second time in program history; they made it that far in 2006 before losing to eventual champion Maryland. After an 11-2 run in the final 3½ minutes of Friday’s game, Utah looked poised to win when LSU forward Angel Reese missed a shot with 13 seconds left and the Tigers trailing 63-62.
But Morris scrambled for the ball and was fouled going to the basket. She said she took a moment to gather herself before stepping up to the line.
“You’ve got to breathe, breathe, breathe,” Morris said. “I’m looking at Coach Mulkey, I’m looking at my teammates, my little niece. It wasn’t just about me in that moment. It was about everybody, the program and the fans. That calmed me down, because I knew that they believed in me.”
Morris made both free throws to put LSU up 64-63. Then Utah’s Gianna Kneepkens missed a shot, but Johnson got the offensive rebound and was fouled with 4 seconds left. The 6-foot-2 forward was shooting 72.8% from the foul line entering the game.
Johnson airballed the first free throw.
“It was straight on, really short,” she said.
The second free throw rattled out, and instead of potentially having a one-point lead in the closing seconds, the Utes still trailed by one.
“I don’t think the noise so much affected me,” Johnson said of the LSU crowd’s cheers. “I don’t know, maybe [I was] in my head a little bit from the first one.”
Johnson went to the bench and couldn’t hold back tears. She was consoled by her teammates and Utah coach Lynne Roberts.
Morris then was fouled again and hit two more free throws to put LSU up 66-63. The 5-foot-6 guard started her college career playing for Mulkey at Baylor, was dismissed from the program and transferred twice — to Rutgers and Texas A&M — before rejoining Mulkey at LSU.
“When I got to the line — it was just pure concentration,” Morris said. “You have to think of it as a shot you practice every day. It’s muscle memory, repetition.”
Utah had a 3-point look to tie the game, but it missed and LSU prevailed. Morris finished with 15 points and seven assists to back up LaDazhia Williams’ 24 points and 17 from Reese. Johnson finished with five points for the Utes.
“Obviously right now I’m thinking about the last two free throws, but I have to understand it was a 40-minute game,” Johnson said. “I did some good stuff down the stretch, so try to focus more on that and just going back to Salt Lake, maybe take some time away from basketball and get back after it.”
Roberts praised Johnson as a competitor and said she will learn from a tough experience for a Utah team that was co-Pac-12 regular-season champion this year despite having no seniors.
“She played her tail off today. She left it all out there. I just told her I was proud of her,” Roberts said of what she told Johnson. “A game never comes down to the last shot. I mean, that’s what we remember, that’s what we talk about, but there’s so much that goes on before that.
“I love that kid. She’s a fighter. It’s hard. Those are pressure moments, and it’s a growing experience for her. She’s just a sophomore. But I don’t think that’ll happen again if she gets that opportunity again. If you said Jenna Johnson on the line in this game to win it, would you take it? Heck, yeah. And I’d take it tomorrow.”
ESPN’s Andrea Adelson contributed to this story.
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