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The unlikely star behind LSU’s unlikely NCAA championship run

LSU's Jasmine Carson celebrates after hitting one of her five 3-pointers in the first half. (Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

DALLAS — It was a celebration dripping in sequins.

The party started when Flau’jae Johnson ran over to the sidelines and sent a message to coach Kim Mulkey.

“You’re the GOAT!” she yelled. Then again: “You’re the GOAT!” And again. As her freshman guard shouted, Mulkey’s face wrinkled as she tried to fight back the tears pooling into her eyes.

The seconds ticked down, and Johnson couldn’t contain her excitement any longer. She ran over to Mulkey and lifted the coach off the ground, spinning her in a bear hug. Her purple uniform melded with Mulkey’s sequined, tiger-striped suit to create one blur of joy.

A season that started with criticism about a weak schedule ended in celebration on the ultimate stage. With their 102-85 win over superstar Caitlin Clark and Iowa on Sunday, the LSU Tigers were crowned national champions for the first time in program history.

Achieving that feat seemed unlikely at first, and unlikely still when the Tigers were blown out by South Carolina in the regular season, and when they lost to Tennessee in the SEC tournament.

Unlikely to outsiders, but predetermined to those within the program. Angel Reese has been talking about this since she transferred to LSU last spring. So has Kateri Poole, the friend who convinced Reese to make the campus visit when LSU wasn’t even on her radar.

“This is why I came to LSU,” Poole said after the game, with confetti swirling at her feet and her mother looking on with pure adoration in her eyes. An onlooker told Poole’s mom that she had confetti stuck in her hair; “I don’t care,” she replied with a grin.

In the background, Reese took photos with her brother, Julian. She took phones from spectators and recorded videos for them. And of course, she posed with her tiara, something that has become a staple for LSU celebrations this season.

Since the beginning of the season, the Tigers have pretended to crown Reese when she makes an exciting play or has a big game. At one point, they traded out the gesture for a real tiara. Reese, the queen of the tournament and the Final Four Most Outstanding Player, finished with 15 points, 10 rebounds and five assists. Alexis Morris finished with 21 points, 19 of which came in the second half, and LaDazhia Williams had 20.

None of them, however, was LSU’s leading scorer. That came from an unlikely source — but like the title itself, only unlikely to those outside the program. Inside the Tigers’ locker room, graduate transfer Jasmine Carson is a known scorer.

“Jasmine may be the second best pure shooter that I’ve ever coached in my career,” Mulkey said. “She can just light it up.”

Carson finished with 22 points, and the Tigers needed every single one of them.

The first half was laden with whistles, and Reese spent significant time on the bench in early foul trouble. Morris also picked up two quick fouls and went into halftime with just two points. Mulkey went to her bench, and suddenly it was Carson’s moment, one the Tigers knew was coming.

Emily Ward, a senior walk-on, noticed that Carson was hot in warm-ups.

“I went up to her and I was like, ‘OK Jas, you’re going to have a big game,’” Ward said. “None of us were shocked that she was doing that. She hits them all the time in practice.”

Carson scored 21 of her 22 points in the first half, going a perfect 7-for-7 from the field and 5-for-5 from the 3-point line during the stretch. Everyone on the LSU bench celebrated. And in a concert hall in Atlanta, so did Carson’s high school coach.

Phyllis Arthur’s boyfriend surprised her with tickets to a jazz concert a few days ago, not realizing the national championship game was the same day. But she wasn’t going to miss Carson’s biggest game at LSU, so as they waited for the opening act to go on, Arthur watched the Tigers on her phone.

Every time Carson hit a shot, Arthur jumped out of her seat.

Arthur has coached girls basketball at McEachern High School for 17 years. There, she coached Carson and coached against Flau’jae Johnson, so Arthur was thrilled for both players on Sunday.

Thrilled, but not surprised.

“That’s the Jasmine I know,” she said on a phone call during intermission of the concert. “I love her shot. And when she’s on, she’s on. And she was on tonight. Thank god.”

Carson is one of several LSU transfer portal success stories. She started her career at Georgia Tech before transferring to West Virginia for two seasons and closing out her fifth year with the Tigers, averaging 8.4 points per game this season.

Carson started throughout the regular season, but when the NCAA Tournament began, Mulkey opted to bring her off the bench in favor of having bigger bodies on the court.

Still, Carson stayed ready.

So ready that she didn’t need her usual pregame routine. Morris and Carson typically get up extra shots together in warm-ups, but today, when Morris asked her if she wanted to, Carson said no.

“I’m good,” she said.

And she was. She was really, really good. She was 22 points good. She was five made 3-pointers good. She was national champion good.

Carson came off the bench to go a perfect 7-for-7 from the field in the first half. (Ben Solomon/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

After the game, when Mulkey shuffled through the confetti barefoot, and Reese climbed a ladder to cut her piece of the net, and Johnson danced with her championship hat on her head, and Arthur cheered among a crowd of jazz fans, they all had Carson to thank.

“I didn’t have nothing to lose,” Carson said. “This was my last game of my college career, and I ended it the right way.”

She ended it as a national champion.

Eden Laase is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @eden_laase.