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How Angel Reese found happiness and the ‘perfect fit’ at LSU

In her first season at LSU, Angel Reese is sixth in the nation in scoring and second in rebounds per game. (Beau Brune/LSU Athletics)

When Angel Reese first arrived at LSU last spring — after shocking the women’s basketball world when she transferred out of Maryland after just two seasons — she was ready to resume her college career wearing number 10. It’s the same jersey number her mother, Angel, used to wear when she played. The same number her younger brother, Julian, wears as a sophomore for the Terps. And the same number that now hangs in the rafters of her high school alma mater, St. Francis Academy in Baltimore.

“Number 10 is just our number, really,” Julian says. “Like, when you see number 10, you see the Reese family.”

There was just one problem. Number 10 was already taken by LSU graduate senior Ryann Payne. So, Reese had to settle for the number one instead.

In a way, it seemed fitting — a new number for a new start at a new school.

Transferring wasn’t something Reese had planned on when she first embarked on her college career in 2020 as a five-star recruit and the No. 2 player in the nation. But basketball sometimes takes players places they hadn’t intended on going. And to fully understand Reese’s basketball journey thus far, you have to go back to where it all began.

“My whole family played basketball. My aunts played basketball, my brother plays basketball, my grandparents played basketball. So, it kind of was like, ‘You’re gonna do this,’” says Reese, who tried everything from ballet to cheerleading while growing up. She also ran track and was a standout in volleyball.

But basketball was always the sport. And Reese’s mother, who raised her as a single parent, was the catalyst.

“I used to go to my mom’s games when I was younger. She used to play in a little league, and I used to always go watch her games on Sundays. That was something that was always inspiring to me,” Reese says. “She’s always been independent and she molded that into me. I am who I am because of her.”

When Reese first started playing, she was a point guard. A growth spurt in high school forced her into the frontcourt instead, but her point-guard abilities — ball handles, court vision, defensive agility and passing ability — went along with her. Those skills, combined with her 6-3 height and ability to rebound, set her apart.

Reese averaged a double-double throughout her high school career. And when the time came for her to pick a college program, Maryland seemed like the right choice.

“It was staying close to home, and also my development. Shay Robinson was there at that point [as an assistant coach], and I wanted to play with a post player, so we had Shakira Austin,” Reese says. “Brenda drove me there as well. She had recruited me since I was in the eighth grade and she had a great bond with my family, so it seemed to be a perfect fit for me, going into it.”

The expectations that followed Reese to Maryland were sky high. In her debut for the Terps, Reese notched 20 points and snagged nine rebounds. But the rest of her freshman year didn’t pan out the way she had hoped.

Austin had transferred to Ole Miss before the start of the 2020-21 season, COVID-19 was still impacting NCAA game scheduling, and Reese suffered a foot fracture just four games into the season. The injury and subsequent surgery kept her off the court until late February.

“Yeah, that was an emotional rollercoaster because I’ve never been hurt and I’ve never had to have surgery before,” Reese says. “It was tough. Like honestly, I’m not gonna lie — it was so tough on me because I had a lot of expectations.”

Reese eventually hit a mental wall, feeling like she was disappointing her team when she couldn’t be out there. But she stayed as engaged as possible, attending practices and standing firm on the sideline during games, hopping on one leg and cheering the team on. In turn, her teammates and coaches supported her throughout the recovery process.

By the time she returned to the court, Reese was ready to help Maryland win in any way that she could. She played limited minutes for the rest of the season, averaging eight points and 5.6 rebounds per game. The Terps made it to the Sweet 16 of the 2021 NCAA Tournament, losing a close game to Texas, 64-61.

When the 2021-22 season rolled around, Reese was determined to make her mark. She wanted more for Maryland and for herself. She wanted more than the Sweet 16. As a sophomore, Reese played in all 32 games while averaging 17.7 points and 10.6 rebounds. Though she often got into foul trouble, which left an already short Terrapins bench strapped, she finished second in the nation with 5.3 offensive rebounds per game and was named to the 2022 All-Big Ten Team.

Reese led Maryland in points, rebounds and blocks per game as a sophomore. (G Fiume/Getty Images)

Despite another bumpy season for the Terps — full of injuries to key players and COVID-19 infections — they made it back to the Sweet 16, this time against Stanford. Reese put up 25 points and grabbed nine boards, but it wasn’t enough. Maryland came up short once again, 72-66.

“I think we did what we could do,” Reese says of the season. “Some games we only had six players. I think only three players last year played every single game or were at every single practice. I mean, it was a rollercoaster and I think we did as best as we could do. We didn’t finish where we wanted to finish, but I think overall, it was great.”

After the game, Reese tweeted, “We’ll be back, I’ll be back, TRUST ME.”

But once the rigors of the college basketball season ended, she began to think otherwise. Her up-and-down sophomore year, combined with the injury setback during her freshman year, had been taxing. And Reese says she needed a fresh start.

Ten days later, she entered the transfer portal. In one week, Maryland lost its top two scorers, Reese and Ashley Owusu, and three other players to the portal, coinciding with a growing trend in college basketball that Frese said she was prepared for.

“Our new reality is the transfer portal,” Maryland coach Brenda Frese said back in 2020. “Kids come and go, and they do what’s best for their unique situations. As a program, you have to do what’s best.”

When asked for comment from Frese, a Maryland spokesperson said this week, “We certainly wish Angel and her family all the best in her career.”

For Reese, doing what was best for her meant looking for a different opportunity that would help her grow as a player, with her sights set on the WNBA.

“I wanted more for myself,” she says. “I knew that I wanted to develop into that stretch-four player, so being able to do that and play under a coach that could help me get to that level — because I know I’m not gonna play the five at the next level. I know I’m not gonna be sitting down in the post. I mean, there are way bigger players than me in the WNBA, so I know that I would have to play that stretch-four position.”

As one of the top players in the transfer portal, Reese was soon courted by a handful of elite programs. Her family and AAU coaches advised her to go where she felt most comfortable. Reese scheduled visits with South Carolina and Tennessee, thinking her decision would come down to being either a Gamecock or a Vol.

LSU wasn’t even on her radar, until Kateri Poole intervened.

Poole and Reese had been friends for a long time. They met on the Blue Star 30 circuit and stayed close throughout high school. After playing two seasons at Ohio State, Poole decided to transfer as well. She had been zeroing in on LSU since the Buckeyes played them in the Sweet 16 of the 2022 NCAA Tournament. As soon as Reese hit the transfer portal, Poole suggested they take a visit to Baton Rouge together.

“We got there. The food was awesome. We’re both from the East Coast, so it was new to us,” Poole says. “We both got the whole experience. The Southern hospitality was really good. I think that was the main thing for us, and I think she fell in love with how real Kim was.”

Later on in the visit, during a team dinner at Mulkey’s house, Poole and Reese walked into the sprawling backyard and agreed — they were going to LSU. And on May 6, it became official.

“When I came here, I just fell in love with everything — the environment, the people, everything that Coach Mulkey did in one year,” Reese says. “My development, where she had me as a plan for the next two to three years — all of that was set up for me so I was just like, yeah, this is the perfect place for me.”

Reese was also impressed with how much LSU supports its women’s sports teams. She was amazed at the size of the crowd during the Tigers’ preseason games, and in early January she acknowledged a billboard featuring her and her teammates alongside players from the men’s team. “Recruits,” Reese wrote on Twitter, “when you choose a school, choose somewhere where they treat both the mens and womens teams EQUAL.”

From day one, the energy she felt from LSU athletics and Mulkey herself felt different.

“She’s gonna keep it real with me. She’s never told me a lie. She’s always kept it real with me,” Reese says of Mulkey. “That’s something that I love. She’s really, really competitive. Like, super competitive.”

In turn, Mulkey says she knew from the first intra-squad scrimmage just how good Reese could be, because nobody on the team could stop her. And what she saw during practice over the spring and summer has since translated into the regular season.

“She’s playing extended minutes. She’s never played this many minutes before because she would always get in foul trouble. So, I think she’s more disciplined,” Mulkey said during a press conference in early January. “She sees every defense imaginable and yet she’s still one of our assist leaders. She’s gonna look for the open player. It’s impressive.

“I don’t care who you play, she’s capable of doing that every game.”

Since November, Reese has accumulated 18 consecutive double-doubles while averaging 23.9 points and 15.4 rebounds. She leads the nation with 6.1 offensive rebounds per game and 104 total rebounds on the offensive glass — more than 13 Division I schools have as a team.

The Tigers are currently 18-0 and ranked No. 3 in the AP Top 25, but they have played just one ranked opponent so far this season. A softer schedule can often inflate statistics and make teams look more efficient on both ends of the floor. Still, it’s hard to overlook Reese’s numbers and overall impact. Her stats are up across the board, and she’s firmly in the conversation for Player of the Year.

“I haven’t seen a significant role change. I think she still has the same skill set. It’s just that she’s got a change of scenery,” says ESPN women’s basketball analyst Debbie Antonelli. “She’s the top offensive rebounder in the country. To me, that says a lot about perseverance and being relentless and aggressive and knowing her role.”

“I’m just happy,” Reese says. “This is the happiest I’ve ever been playing. I feel like I’m back to my game. I came out of high school as the No. 1 wing, so being able to go straight to the post, that was a hard shift for me. And then being able to come back to playing here at LSU, being a versatile post player, being able to do things outside of just being a post player — I’m really happy.”

Later this month, LSU will go up against SEC foes Tennessee and No. 1 South Carolina. Both matchups will be litmus tests for the Tigers. Despite what their schedule indicates so far, Reese is confident in what her team has built this season, with all of the new pieces coming together. And she has her eyes set on bigger goals.

“I mean, that would be great if I won Player of the Year, but I want to win a national championship. I want to get past the Sweet 16,” Reese says.

“People remember the Player of the Year. But when you have that ring, like, I want to be able to do something legendary here at LSU.”

Reese recently shared a photo of herself standing next to LSU alum and WNBA legend Seimone Augustus. It was taken in 2011, when Reese was 9 years old. On Jan. 15, Augustus received a statue in her honor outside of Pete Maravich Assembly Center with Reese in attendance.

That’s the kind of legacy Reese hopes to leave behind. She wants to be as memorable of a player as Augustus, and as dominant as Sylvia Fowles, who currently holds the LSU record for most consecutive double-doubles with 19, which Reese can tie with another double-double Thursday night against Arkansas. And she wants to continue her career at the next level in the WNBA, just like they did.

Julian has no doubt his sister will get there.

“I feel like she’s playing great. I see her working hard this offseason, and I feel like all that hard work is paying off,” he says. “She’s just showing her true self and coming out of her shell. There’s more to come for her.”

Perhaps it’s serendipitous, but Reese is back to wearing number 10 again. Four games into the season, Payne finished up her graduate studies and decided to move on from basketball. When the number became available, Reese wasted little time asking the coaching staff if she could have it.

“I was like, ‘Hey you guys, can I get number 10?’” she laughs. “And they were like, ‘We’ll let you know, we’ll see.’ They kept playing around. They were like, ‘I don’t know, Angel. If you switch to number 10, you still gonna do what you gotta do?’

“And I was like, ‘Yeah, I think I will.’”

Lyndsey D’Arcangelo is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports, covering the WNBA and college basketball. She also contributes to The Athletic and is the co-author of “Hail Mary: The Rise and Fall of the National Women’s Football League.” Follow Lyndsey on Twitter @darcangel21.