Ashley Owusu came to the Virginia Tech women’s basketball team as a star transfer. But almost a year after she entered the portal, her season ended in infighting with her Hokies teammates and with Owusu reentering the transfer portal.

How did the once-promising partnership reach the breaking point? Just Women’s Sports presents a timeline of Owusu’s year with Virginia Tech, from her transfer announcement to the social media stir after Friday night’s Final Four loss to LSU.

April 5, 2022

The 6-0 guard announced via Twitter her decision to leave Maryland after three seasons.

“Unfortunately, events that have transpired on and off the court this year have led me to the very difficult but necessary decision to continue my education and basketball career elsewhere,” she wrote.

After her sophomore season with the Terrapins, she won the Ann Meyers Drysdale award as the top shooting guard in the country, which Iowa’s Caitlin Clark has won this season. In her junior season, she averaged 14.3 points and 3.7 assists per game. But she elected to spend her senior season elsewhere.

April 30, 2022

“Wassup Hokie Nation,” Owusu wrote in an Instagram post, revealing her destination for the 2022-23 season.

She joined Virginia Tech as one of the top transfers of the offseason. “I love it here,” she tweeted on July 3, and she echoed the same sentiment on Instagram with a video of herself practicing with her new team.

Nov. 7, 2022

In her first game for Virginia Tech, Owusu featured in the starting lineup, posted 9 points, 4 assists and 2 rebounds in 28 minutes in a 101-45 win against Mount St. Mary’s.

Nov. 27, 2022

The senior guard scored a season-high 21 points in 26 minutes in Virginia Tech’s 89-28 win against Longwood.

Dec. 1, 2022

Owusu broke her pinkie finger in the first quarter of the Hokies’ 85-54 win against Nebraska. She had started the first seven games of the year for her new squad, but the injury and subsequent surgery kept her out of the lineup for the next seven weeks.

“Very unselfish — she never really tried to go outside of what we were doing, just trying to figure it out,” Virginia Tech coach Kenny Brooks told ESPN in December following the injury. “She had some games where she was a little bit in a lull because she was trying to figure it out, and then you kind of see — unfortunately for us — right before she got hurt, she was starting to figure it out.

“I thought she was going to get on a roll and then she gets hurt.”

Jan. 19, 2023

In her first game back from her injury, Owusu played 21 minutes of the bench, scoring 5 points on 2-for-8 shooting. She did not play as many as 20 minutes again for the rest of the season.

Feb. 26, 2023

In Virginia Tech’s regular-season finale, a 65-52 win against Georgia Tech, Owusu played just five minutes and did not score. She would not play again for the Hokies, remaining on the bench for the entire postseason.

Two days before this game, she tweeted “freee meee” in response to a video of her playing for Maryland.

March 3, 2023

The Hokies played their first game of the ACC Tournament, but Owusu did not appear in the 68-42 win against Miami. When asked after the game what she needs to do to get back on the court, she redirected the question to Brooks.

“I’m not sure,” she said. “You’ll have to ask him.”

Virginia Tech went on to win the tournament title, but Owusu did not play in any of the three games.

Brooks told The Roanoke Times that his team found its identity while Owusu was working her way back from injury.

“Everybody can just look and see and tell that we’ve got things going in a tremendous direction,” Brooks said. “[The injury] was an unfair situation — not only for her but for us because it usually takes transfers a little while to get used to your system. And the time they’re usually getting used to it, she was out.

“During that time, we formed a different identity — one that probably would’ve been different if she were healthy and playing.”

March 31, 2023

No. 1 seed Virginia Tech made a historic run to the first Final Four in school history. During the semifinal contest, a fierce battle with No. 3 seed LSU, Owusu sat on the bench with her team in the first half but did not return to the bench after halftime in the eventual loss.

The team said Owusu “was not feeling well,” The Next’s Mitchell Northam reported. But in response to a tweet asking after Owusu’s whereabouts, teammate Kayana Traylor tweeted, “hmm idk check the lsu bench.” Traylor’s post was retweeted by several teammates, including Elizabeth Kitley and Taylor Soule.

Ashley’s father Emmanuel Owusu responded to Traylor’s tweet, writing: “Maybe you should the truth about how he hasn’t spoken to several kids in the team for months. How about the special group chat the coach has with 7 of the kids.”

Owusu’s former Maryland teammate Angel Reese, who now stars for LSU, tweeted after the game, “FREE MY DAWG @Ashleyyowusu15,” to which Virginia Tech guard Cayla King replied, “She’s been free.”

Brooks and his players were not asked about the apparent tension between Owusu and her teammates at the postgame press conference, though simmering tempers seemed to boil over on Twitter in the aftermath of the loss.

April 4, 2023

Owusu entered the transfer portal after the end of the season, Virginia Tech confirmed to ESPN. She has one year of COVID-19 eligibility remaining.

Her decision to enter the portal represents a reversal from her stance in early March, when she told The Next she planned to go pro rather than return for a fifth year.

The LSU Tigers hoisted the 2023 NCAA championship trophy on Sunday with a 102-85 win over Iowa. On the way to victory, LSU’s Angel Reese and Alexis Morris had exceptional individual performances, earning them spots on the JWS All-NCAA Tournament Team alongside other outstanding players.

Here are my choices for the First and Second Team starting five.

All-Tournament First Team

Angel Reese, LSU

The Final Four Most Outstanding Player led LSU throughout the season and continued her dominance in the postseason. Reese had a double-double in all six tournament games, starting with a 34-point, 15-rebound performance against Hawaii in the first round. She followed that up with 25 points, 24 rebounds and six blocks against Michigan, marking the first time a player had at least 25 points, 20 rebounds and five blocks in a tournament game.

Reese’s final contest secured her MOP award. The sophomore finished with 15 points, 10 rebounds, five assists, three steals, one block and zero turnovers to lead her team to a dominant national championship victory over Iowa.

Alexis Morris, LSU

LSU’s point guard almost joined Reese in the double-double club during the championship game. She finished just one assist shy of the mark, with 21 points and nine assists. Morris scored 19 of those points in the second half to help extend LSU’s lead and end Iowa’s chances of a comeback.

Morris was also critical in LSU’s semifinal win over Virginia Tech, leading the Tigers with 27 points. It was one of three tournament games in which Morris played all 40 minutes.

Caitlin Clark, Iowa

Clark created buzz throughout March Madness, and for good reason. Not only did she set a new NCAA Tournament record — men’s or women’s — with 191 total points, but she also recorded a historic 41-point triple-double in the Elite Eight as Iowa topped Louisville.

In the next game, Clark recorded 41 points again, this time to upset the undefeated defending champion South Carolina Gamecocks. Clark continued her stat-stuffing ways by adding eight assists and six rebounds in that contest. Over the six tournament games, Clark averaged 31.8 points per game.

Georgia Amoore, Virginia Tech

Virginia Tech’s point guard also had a record-setting tournament, making an all-time high 24 3-pointers, until Clark broke the record in the title game. Amoore left an indelible mark regardless, as she led the Hokies to their first Final Four in program history. With consistent highlight-reel step-back 3s, Amoore averaged 22.6 points per game in the tournament — a 6.3-point increase from her regular-season average.

Cotie McMahon, Ohio State

Ohio State didn’t make the Final Four, but McMahon was phenomenal in her team’s four games, earning her a place on the First Team. Her best game came in a historic victory over UConn in the Sweet 16, propelling Ohio State to its first Elite Eight appearance since 1993. The freshman finished with 23 points, five rebounds, two assists and two steals against the Huskies.

Zia Cooke led South Carolina with 24 points in the Final Four. (C. Morgan Engel/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

All-Tournament Second Team

Zia Cooke, South Carolina

The Gamecocks point guard was solid throughout her team’s run to the Final Four and was one of the best players on the floor in the loss to Iowa. Cooke finished with 24 points and eight rebounds in that game.

Elizabeth Kitley, Virginia Tech

Kitley was a double-double machine for Virginia Tech as the Hokies advanced to the Final Four. She recorded at least 10 points and 10 rebounds in all but one contest. And in that game — a Sweet 16 win over Tennessee — she came up just two rebounds short of recording another.

Aliyah Boston, South Carolina

Boston was a force on both ends of the court for the Gamecocks, recording at least one block in all five of South Carolina’s tournament games. The 2022 National Player of the Year’s best performance came in an Elite Eight win over Maryland, where she finished with 22 points, 10 rebounds, five assists and two blocks.

Monika Czinano, Iowa

In the midst of all the hype surrounding South Carolina’s bigs, it was Czinano who dominated the paint in Iowa’s Final Four win. She finished with 18 points and went 6-for-8 from the field, continuing the efficiency she’s become known for.

Maddy Siegrist, Villanova

Siegrist led her team to a Sweet 16 appearance thanks to three-straight 30-plus point games. The senior became just the fifth women’s Division I player to score 1,000 points in a single season when she eclipsed the mark in Villanova’s first-round win over Cleveland State. Siegrist was even stellar in the Sweet 16 loss to Miami, finishing with 31 points, 13 rebounds, five steals and two assists.

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

Kim Mulkey has grabbed attention with her her sideline fits throughout the NCAA women’s basketball tournament, and she did not disappoint in the grand finale.

In just her second year as the head coach for LSU, Mulkey has led the third-seeded Tigers to the national championship game. And along the way, she has turned heads and set tongues wagging with her fashion statements.

For Sunday’s title game against No. 2 seed Iowa, set to tip off at 3:30 p.m. ET on ABC and ESPN+, the 60-year-old coach wore a pink-and-gold sequined suit with purple stripes, an homage to her team’s mascot.

Her tournament-long fashion show started with a sweater reading “Kiss Me I’m a Queen.” She followed that up with a polka-dot ensemble for LSU’s second-round win.

The Sweet 16 brought the most iconic look, a Neubyrne blazer with neon pink feathers running down each sleeve. She wore a sparkling rainbow blazer for the Elite Eight, from the aptly named Louisiana fashion company Queen of Sparkles. And for the Final Four, she wore a bright pink blazer decorated with large fabric flowers.

Mulkey’s style has evolved since she came to LSU after 21 seasons as the head coach at Baylor, she acknowledged when speaking with Baton Rouge newspaper The Advocate in February.

“I needed a little more flair here — it’s Louisiana,” she said, showing off the closet dedicated to her 105 pairs of high-heeled shoes.

Jennifer Roberts, LSU’s director of player personnel and influence, coordinates Mulkey’s looks. Roberts helps players with NIL deals, and she also helps Mulkey with her own brand.

LSU players and fans alike have taken notice of the coach’s style, Roberts said.

“The LSU fan base, they love it. It’s the culture here — big, loud, fun, happy, all the things,” Roberts told The Advocate. “They do everything big. … I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, ‘We come to the games to see what Kim’s going to wear.'”

Still, while while the fashion statements can be fun, Mulkey prefers to keep her focus on the court.

“Basketball is the most important part — much more important than what I wear,” Mulkey said. “Yes, my outfits are a little bit more sparkly, but I want to talk about the product on the floor — basketball.”

DALLAS — Emma and Abigail Lehl had never been to an Iowa basketball game. They’d also never been on a road trip.

The girls, ages 8 and 6, knocked both out with one epic adventure, as their mom Haley piled them into a car and made the 12 hour, 34 minute drive from Cedar Falls, Iowa to Dallas for the Final Four.

After a season of watching the Hawkeyes on TV, the family decided this moment was too good to pass up.

“This could only happen once,” Haley said. “You never know.”

She’s right. The Final Four has eluded the Iowa women’s basketball team since 1993, so Lehl wasn’t going to risk her daughters missing out.

And she’s not the only one.

As Iowa defeated South Carolina on Friday for a spot in Sunday’s national championship game against LSU, the crowd at American Airlines Center had a noticeable contingent of Hawkeyes fans. In addition to their designated section, the stands were peppered with yellow shirts, hats, jerseys, and even a few pairs of striped overalls.

“That was super cool,” Iowa guard Kate Martin said. “We are like 16 hours away from home and we still had that many fans show up for us. It just really shows that we have the best fans in the country, and I wouldn’t be surprised if more Hawk fans showed up for Sunday.”

With seconds remaining on the clock in Friday’s semifinal game, it became clear that Iowa was going to pull off the upset of undefeated South Carolina. That’s when Abigail Lehl, who accessorized her Iowa gear with sparkly pink crocs, adorned with the letters “I O W A”, realized her team was going to win.

“That was my favorite part,” she said. “When Caitlin Clark threw the ball up and came to celebrate with the crowd.”

Clark dazzled the arena with a 41-point performance that included eight assists and six rebounds. The game between the Player of the Year and the undefeated defending champions generated a lot of buzz and had the turnout to match. It was a sold-out crowd, and tickets were hard to come by. The game also drew 5.5 million viewers on ESPN platforms, making it the most-viewed NCAA Women’s Tournament semifinal game on record.

Josh and Meg Rife started talking to their kids about going to the Final Four back at the start of the season. Then, Josh says, it was a joke. But as Iowa continued to win games and the Rifes continued to follow their run, it became clear that the joke was becoming a reality.

“After they won on Sunday (against Lousiville in the Elite Eight), I looked at the tickets and I was like, ‘These seem kind of expensive,’ but we promised the kids so we are going to do it,” Josh Rife said. “Then I woke up the next day and those tickets that I thought were expensive were all gone. I looked at what was left and I was like, ‘Well, I don’t perceive these getting any cheaper, so let’s just pull the trigger.”

In total, they spent $3,400 on tickets for the Final Four and the national title game.

The Rife kids, 10-year-old Holden and 8-year-old Cecilia, are fans of all Hawkeye sports, but this team has made a special kind of impact on them. Cecilia’s favorite player is Gabbie Marshall, while Holden marvels at the playmaking of Clark.

“He never differentiates between the men’s and women’s teams,” Josh said of Holden. “He loves the Hawks. And I don’t think there is a player he finds more engrossing and more fun to watch than Caitlin Clark.”

Rife grew up in Iowa and watched the 1993 team until, as he says “Ohio State and Katie Smith tore us up in the semifinal game.” Smith, who was a freshman at the time, went on to have a successful career in the WNBA and now serves as an assistant coach for the Minnesota Lynx.

Despite the loss, Rife remembers the run well, and he wants that for his kids.

“This is going to be a core memory for them,” he said. “They were so engrossed in the game, you know, sitting forward on the chairs, and it was just really special for them to be in the same arena with a team that we have followed closely.”

It made the drive and the money spent well worth it, something that Ralna McVinua understands well. Her family lives in Storm Lake, Iowa, which is a three-hour and 40-minute drive from Carver Hawkeye Arena. Despite the distance, the McVinuas are season ticket holders, and she took her two daughters to seven Iowa home games this season before deciding to attend the Final Four.

McVinua is a life-long Iowa resident. She was 17 the last time the Hawkeyes were in the Final Four, but she couldn’t see the games on TV. Instead, McVinua read what she could about the team in her hometown newspaper.

Now, the Hawkeyes get all kinds of coverage, a shift McVinua credits to the team’s star player.

“Taking my daughters to see this is amazing,” she said. “And we feel that Caitlin Clark has really grown the game. A lot of people are tuning in just to see her. We feel really fortunate that she is from Iowa and that she stayed in Iowa.”

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

DALLAS — Angel Reese didn’t set out to be a role model. She’s not even sure when or how it happened.

But now, when Reese looks into the crowd of LSU faithful, she sees purple and gold. She sees sequins in honor of her coach Kim Mulkey’s conspicuous fashion choices. And she sees a contingent of young girls cheering her on.

“I didn’t even realize the impact I made on so many little girls,” she said.

She couldn’t understand what captured their attention, so Reese went straight to the source.

“I’ll ask them, ‘Why do you love me?’ And they said, ‘Because you are who you are. You’re you.’ And that’s the biggest trait I carry. Be who you are, and never, ever back down to anyone.”

Reese and her unapologetic personality have taken the NCAA by storm this season, all the way to Sunday’s national championship game, where No. 3 LSU will take on Caitlin Clark and No. 2 Iowa.

Inspired by her single mom, who raised Angel and her brother Julian, Reese is proud of who she is and where she came from. She wears her emotions on her sleeve, on the court and on her Twitter account. Reese never holds back.

In a win over Arkansas on Jan. 19, Reese lost her shoe during a defensive possession, but it made no difference. When Samara Spencer drove to the basket, Reese held her sneaker in one hand and used the other to deliver a soul-crushing block.

Then, Reese stood over Spencer, who had fallen to the ground, and delivered a few lines of trash talk — another trait she’s become known for this season.

It resulted in a technical foul and discourse over the way Reese carries herself. But the LSU star isn’t going to tone down her personality for officials or for spectators. It’s who she is. And being a role model and a trash talker aren’t mutually exclusive.

“I’m from Baltimore where you hoop outside and talk trash,” she wrote on Twitter following the game. “If I was a boy y’all wouldn’t be saying nun at all. Let’s normalize women showing passion for the game instead of it being ‘embarrassing.’”

Twitter is where Reese addresses any grievances people have about her and her team. Often, young people are advised to think about what they put out into the world. The general consensus has long been that it’s better to keep those thoughts in your circle. But just like she rejects shots, Reese swats away that notion one tweet at a time.

Her candor, both online and in press conferences, rubs some people the wrong way, but it endears Reese to others. And those little LSU fans love it. Her realness and online presence are relatable to a generation that’s grown up with Twitter and TikTok.

“I feel like my life is an open book,” she said. “Everybody sees everything that goes on in my life. I don’t really have a personal life.”

Reese posts “get ready with me” videos on TikTok, sometimes, even on game days. She chats to the camera in a fluffy pink robe and a cheetah print bonnet while brushing her teeth and styling her hair. Social media makes these college stars more accessible, but Reese takes it to the extreme, letting her fans into every moment of her life.

All the while, she stays true to herself. Her wardrobe, full lashes and hair — she gets hers from former Baylor basketball player Te’a Cooper’s company, Hollywood Luxury Hair — have earned Reese the nickname “Bayou Barbie” among LSU fans.

Reese’s soft voice and doe-eyed videos are a far cry from her on-court persona, but both are quintessentially Angel. And transferring to LSU from Maryland after last season — another action she’s received criticism for — allowed Reese to fully embrace who she is.

“She came to LSU for a new start,” coach Kim Mulkey said. “I think Angel has grown up a lot. She can handle tough love.”

Reese doesn’t just handle it; she needs it. And she knew Mulkey would push her to be fully herself.

Reese and LSU coach Kim Mulkey have formed a special bond this season. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

LSU wasn’t even on her list, but her close friend and former Ohio State player, Kateri Poole, convinced Reese to take the visit with her. Reese was considering South Carolina and Tennessee, but after she talked to Mulkey and walked around LSU’s campus, Reese canceled her other two visits.

That’s how sure Reese is of herself and her instincts. She knew she was meant to be a Tiger, and now, as she prepares to play for a national championship, her decision is paying off.

When the little girls in the stands are cheering her on, they’ll see a trash-talking, eyelash wearing, Twitter-typing basketball player. They’ll see someone who knows who she is, loves who she is and is never afraid of that. They might see her get a technical. They might see an elaborate celebration or a TikTok dance after she scores an and-1. They might hear a spicy postgame quote.

They’ll see Angel Reese being Angel Reese. And they’ll love her for it.

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

DALLAS — The Iowa Hawkeyes had to be perfect.

There was no wiggle room on the defensive game plan. No margin of error at any position. No opportunities to be taken for granted.

To beat South Carolina, the undefeated defending national champions, Iowa would have had to play an unprecedented 40 minutes.

So, that’s what they did.

When the buzzer sounded in the second Final Four game on Friday night in Dallas, the scoreboard read Iowa 77, South Carolina 73. After the basketball world watched South Carolina win 42 consecutive games, Iowa went to Dallas and beat the unbeatable team.

“Probably everybody in America picked South Carolina, deservedly so,” Caitlin Clark said. “They’ve been ranked No. 1 all year. They’ve won 42 straight basketball games. Why wouldn’t you pick them? But at the same time, the people in our locker room believed in us. That’s all you need is a belief in one another, a confidence in one another.”

It may have started with belief, but the Hawkeyes did need more. And they got it from up and down their lineup to earn a spot in Sunday’s national championship game against LSU, Iowa’s first appearance there in program history.

It’s hard to look at South Carolina and see weakness. Dawn Staley just took home Coach of the Year honors. Aliyah Boston is the Defensive Player of the Year, and if she decides to declare, Boston will almost certainly be the No. 1 pick in the WNBA Draft. Zia Cooke is an All-American, Raven Johnson was the No. 2 player in her recruiting class, and coming off the bench, the Gamecocks have players who could be starting.

To look at South Carolina is to see dominance. But when Iowa watched game film to prepare for the Final Four matchup, that’s not what they saw.

They saw vulnerabilities that they could capitalize on.

“We feel like we can beat anyone in the country, and so we didn’t need to see a whole lot of film to think that,” Kate Martin said. “But after watching that film, everybody has flaws. Nobody is perfect. They’ve won 42 games in a row, but everybody messes up, and we did a good job of exposing that.”

The Hawkeyes didn’t need to see the film to know they could beat South Carolina, but it gave them more than the confidence they already had. It gave them a blueprint.

One game in particular dominated their film sessions: a Nov. 29 contest where UCLA stuck with South Carolina before falling 73-64. The Bruins packed the paint and sagged off the South Carolina guards, daring them to shoot. In that game, the Gamecocks went 1-for-14 from beyond the arc. Against Iowa, they were 4-for-20. If there was a weakness in the impenetrable force that is South Carolina, there it was.

“Kudos to UCLA for giving us some ideas,” Martin joked.

It wasn’t an exact replica, though. More like a jumping-off point.

“We played a similar style, but we upped it a little bit more, packed the paint a little bit more, and sagged off even more,” sophomore center Addison O’Grady said.

The Hawkeyes were committed to their game plan from the jump to the final buzzer. They sagged off of Raven Johnson, who stepped up and made three 3-pointers. Even when her shot started to fall, the approach stayed the same.

“I loved our game plan,” Clark said. “We were going to live with them making 3s. I thought Johnson came through and made some tough 3s in situations where they needed it, but we never got discouraged.”

The Hawkeyes knew they could afford to give up a few 3-pointers. Because when it’s offense vs. offense, they are going to win. Iowa leads the country with 87.6 points per game, and in a shootout, that matters.

“We just knew we had better offense, which really helped us,” Martin said.

That offense, of course, starts with Clark. She finished with 41 points and eight assists, and in the fourth quarter, Clark assisted on or scored every Iowa point.

As for the defense, that starts with Gabbie Marshall.

The guard didn’t score a single point against South Carolina, but her presence was felt.

Iowa's Gabbie Marshall had the tough assignment of guarding South Carolina's Zia Cooke. (C. Morgan Engel/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

When Georgia was set to take on Iowa in the second round, Bulldogs coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson referred to Marshall as the player with the “pretty eyes.” They may be pretty, but if Marshall is guarding you, her eyes are menacing, too.

There’s nothing quite like watching Marshall defend, Martin says. The senior set the tone for Iowa on Friday as she matched up with Cooke, South Carolina’s star guard. Cooke had 18 points in the first half, but was held to six in the second. And even when Cooke was scoring, Marshall was making a defensive impact.

In the locker room following her team’s victory, Martin marveled at Marshall’s intensity. When she makes a deflection and starts clapping her hands in excitement, the Hawkeyes feel a jolt of energy.

In practice, Marshall is the same way. So when game day comes around, Martin and company are happy she’s guarding the opposition.

“She gets in this zone, and it’s honestly kind of terrifying,” Martin said with a laugh. “She’s just got this look in her eyes, and she’s moving really hard. She really set the tone for us defensively out of the gate.

“Gabbie did not come to play around.”

But even with the perfect defensive game plan, a stopper like Marshall and a scorer like Clark, it was still a battle, particularly in the paint.

South Carolina outrebounded Iowa 49-25, and the Gamecocks had one more offensive rebound than Iowa had total. Martin recalls boxing out on multiple occasions only to have 6-foot-7 Kamilla Cardoso grab the ball from over her head. But that was something they were ready for, and Iowa battled through. South Carolina was always going to be bigger and stronger. They were always going to have Boston, Cardoso and Victaria Saxon. Nothing Iowa did could change that.

But they could change the outcome — by buying into the plan Lisa Bluder laid out, and by playing it to near perfection.

Because, like Martin said, no one is perfect. But on Friday, Iowa was just close enough.

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

Kim Mulkey has treated the NCAA Tournament sidelines as her own personal fashion show, and she brought another showstopper to the Final Four on Friday night.

In just her second year as the head coach of the LSU women’s basketball team, Mulkey has led the third-seeded Tigers to the cusp of the national title game. And along the way, she has turned heads with her eye-catching outfits. (Don’t forget to vote for your favorite below.)

For Friday night’s Final Four showdown against No. 1 seed Virginia Tech, set to tip off at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN, she wore a bright pink blazer with large fabric flowers running from the shoulders all the way down to the cuffs of her sleeves. Her granddaughter, Sage, wore a dress with matching pink ruffles around the collar.

Mulkey started the tournament with a sweater reading “Kiss Me I’m a Queen” (…or did it say “green”?) for her team’s St. Patrick’s Day win against Hawaii. She followed that up with a full polka-dot ensemble for LSU’s second-round win against Michigan.

The most iconic look so far came in the Sweet 16 against Utah, when she donned a Neubyrne blazer with neon pink feathers running down each sleeve. She wore a sparkling rainbow blazer for the Elite Eight, from the aptly named Louisiana fashion company Queen of Sparkles.

“I do not go pick these things out,” Mulkey said after the Sweet 16. “Look, we’re from Louisiana, we like sparkles, we like diamonds, we like Mardi Gras, we like to eat and we like to party.”

Jennifer Roberts, LSU’s director of player personnel and influence, coordinates many of Mulkey’s looks with Queen of Sparkles. The company, owned by Jaime Glas, has provided more than 50 of  the coach’s looks.

For the Final Four, which is being played at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Mulkey has brought some Texas flavor. The coach, who spent 21 seasons at Baylor and still has a home in Waco, wore a black straw cowboy hat emblazoned with the Final Four logo for media day.

“I was going to come in here and sing, ‘All my exes live in Texas,’” she told reporters Thursday. “Which is true. I only have one, though, only been married once.”

Some people have told Mulkey, “‘Coach, quite honestly, I don’t know anything about basketball, but I will come just to see what you wear,’” she admitted to the Wall Street Journal. But she’s just happy to expose them to the sport.

“I want those that come to the games for that reason to keep coming,” Mulkey said. “And I want them to learn the game of basketball.”

Everything about this year’s NCAA Tournament is trending up, from viewership to attendance to Final Four ticket prices.

Ticket prices for the women’s Final Four on Friday outpace those for the men’s Final Four on Saturday on the secondary market.

Yes, the venue is smaller – the men are playing in NRG Stadium, which is home to the Houston Texans and seats nearly 75,000, while the women are playing in the Dallas Mavericks’ American Airlines Center, which seats 20,000. But the prices still speak to the increasing profile of the women’s game.

For the women’s final weekend, an all-session ticket cost at least $475 on Stubhub and $335 on Vivid Seats as of Thursday afternoon, according to ESPN. Meanwhile, on the men’s side, tickets were going for $65 and $66, respectively.

For the semifinals alone, tickets start at around $184 for the women and at just $44 for the men’s.

“I really think the sky’s the limit. I don’t know if ticket prices are as indicative because ours is in an actual basketball arena, and they’re playing in a football stadium. I don’t know how much that affects it,” Iowa star Caitlin Clark said. “But I think it shows the demand that people want to be here and be in the arena that seats 20,000 people.

“More than anything, I’m just lucky and we’re just lucky to get to play on a stage in front of so many people that love the game and want to watch our game.”

No. 2 seed Iowa will face No. 1 overall seed South Carolina in the second semifinal at 9 p.m. ET, while No. 1 seed Virginia Tech will face No. 3 seed LSU in the first semifinal at 7 p.m. ET. Both games will air on ESPN.

“It’s exciting. I’m happy,” LSU standout Angel Reese said. “It’s exciting the women’s game is growing. Being able to see that many people coming to our games — honestly, when I came to LSU, I knew what it was going to be. We get 15,000 fans coming to our games, even on the off-night.

“Just seeing the game growing like this and in a Final Four for the first time, I’m just excited, and I’m excited to see all the people that are coming tomorrow.”

The increase in viewership and attendance throughout the postseason has not gone unnoticed. Viewership on ESPN has hit all-time highs, with anticipation mounting that Friday’s Iowa-South Carolina matchup could shatter records. Attendance has also increased throughout the tournament.

“I think it’s pretty incredible,” Clark said. “I think it’s starting to get the viewership, the attention, things like that that it deserves. When people really turn on the TV or sit in the seat, they understand how good the product is and how much fun it is to watch.”

And if you ask South Carolina coach Dawn Staley, the popularity of this year’s tournament has been years in the making.

“It’s been building towards this for a long time,” Staley said. “Fortunately for us — not just South Carolina, but us as women’s basketball — we’ve got a lot of star power behind our sport.”

The players, for their part, understand their role in growing the game.

“I think the most exciting part about it is being a part of history,” said LSU’s Alexis Morris. “We’re literally watching the game grow and change right in front of our faces, and we’re playing a huge part in it. It’s an honor, and I’m just super excited to be a part of it.”

DALLAS — Aliyah Boston takes free practice seriously.

It’s full of music and fanfare, a chance for spectators to see the Final Four teams in action, prior to the big games. But Boston’s cuts are sharp, her passes crisp. Her garnet braids hang down her back, blending into a South Carolina jersey of the same color. She sings along to Beyoncé’s “You Can’t Break My Soul,” and in between shooting drills and push-ups, she waves to little girls in the stands as they call her name.

And while Boston is focused on practice, a set of blue eyes is focused on her. They belong to Bryn Archie, a 10-year-old with a blonde ponytail sporting a white No. 4 jersey for her favorite player.

When practice is over, Boston rushes over to take a photo with Bryn. This is Bryn’s second time meeting Boston, but the first that she remembers. She was “really little the first time,” she says, but her mom, Lori, confirms that when Bryn was 4 or 5, she did meet Boston.

Whether she remembers or not doesn’t matter. Aliyah is her favorite player. “She’s good at basketball,” Bryn says. “And she’s a good person.”

The basketball part Boston did largely on her own, but the good person that Bryn admires is a product of Al and Cleone, who are sitting on the other side of the gym. It’s through her parents that Aliyah is connected to the Archie family. Lori and her husband have spent years vacationing in Saint Thomas, where the Bostons reside and Aliyah grew up. One day, they met the Bostons, and a conversation about football — the Eagles and the Cowboys to be exact — led to a friendship. As Bryn grew to love basketball, she had a role model in Aliyah.

The Archies, who live in Dallas, and the Bostons have been talking about the Final Four since November.

“Al told us then he had already booked his hotel,” Lori says with a laugh. “He was very confident that they would be here.”

South Carolina, the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, enters Friday night’s Final Four game against No. 2 seed Iowa with the edge. They’ll have to contend with Naismith and AP Player of the Year Caitlin Clark, but on their side the undefeated Gamecocks have Boston, back-to-back Naismith Coach of the Year Dawn Staley and the deepest bench in the sport.

Al and Cleone know how special this opportunity is. For Aliyah to have a chance at two national championships is an accomplishment players dream of. But the on-court achievements are not nearly as special as watching the impact their daughter has on others.

“That’s my favorite part,” Al says, pointing across the stands to Lori and Bryn as they wave.

And the Archies aren’t the only ones here to see Boston. A whole crowd of kids call her name, screaming in excitement when she turns to wave. After Bryn, several others line up for photos before Aliyah has to leave, and they all watch as she runs off the court and into the tunnel.

Even Al and Cleone get their share of the spotlight.

Cleone has a schedule of interviews in Dallas, where reporters hope to learn more about her daughter. The two were even approached for a photo while they watched Aliyah’s practice.

“Do you know who I am?” Al asked, confused.

“Oh yes!” the woman replied.

The interaction gave Al and Cleone a good laugh; Al jokingly blames Cleone for being the one people recognize. But even if others don’t recognize the Bostons in person, they know who they are. After all, they raised one of the country’s best, most impactful players.

Through Aliyah’s rise from the best player on Saint Thomas to one of the best in the NCAA, the Bostons have stayed the same. At the core of their relationship with Aliyah, and with each other, is their relationship with God.

Before every game, Cleone sends Aliyah a devotion. She never plans them out in advance, not even for a game like South Carolina’s Final Four matchup with Iowa. Instead, she prays, and the message comes to her.

At first, she just sent the messages to Aliyah, but over the years, other players have been added to the text thread: Zia Cooke, Brea Beal, Kamilla Cardoso and Victaria Saxton. They start with “Good Morning ladies,” and end with, “Love you ladies.”

Sandwiched in between the greeting and the sign-off is whatever message God sent to Cleone. Whatever the players need that day.

During the Sweet 16, Cleone told them, “Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it and it will be yours.” She signed off with: “With the help of God, victory is your portion. Love you ladies.”

And for the Elite Eight: “No matter how difficult the challenge, when we spread our wings of faith and allow the winds of God’s spirit to lift us, no obstacle is too great to overcome. Seek God. Trust in God. Be Victorious.”

(Jacob Kupferman/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

Al takes a different approach. His job is to send Aliyah videos of players he thinks can give her inspiration. Recently, he sent her clips of Hakeem Olajuwon and his famous hook shot. Like Cleone, he doesn’t plan ahead. Instead, he waits for inspiration to strike.

“Tonight I’ll have a bottle of Pinot Noir and it will come to me,”Al joked, as Clone laughed along with him.

Aliyah Boston’s stage is set. On Friday, when she wakes up, she will open her phone to a message from Cleone. Then, she will watch clips of basketball greats sent from her father. Al will call her, too. And finally, she will take the court, attempting to lead her team to a spot in Sunday’s national championship game and make history once more.

When she does, Bryn Archie’s blue eyes will follow her from one end of the court to the other.

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

College basketball’s biggest stage is set. Iowa, South Carolina, LSU and Virginia Tech are headed to the Final Four, and in three short days, one team will hoist the national championship trophy.

First, No. 3 LSU and No. 1 Virginia Tech (7 pm ET, ESPN), and No. 2 Iowa and No. 1 South Carolina (9 pm ET, ESPN) square off on Friday for the final two spots.

Iowa vs. South Carolina

To have Caitlin Clark and Aliyah Boston, the country’s top two players, squaring off in the Final Four is a gift from the basketball gods. And though the 2023 National Player of the Year and 2022 National Player of the Year will dominate headlines, this game is going to come down to the other eight players on the court.

Clark is going to be Clark. No one in the country has been able to contain her thus far, and even with an elite defender like Brea Beal marking her, I don’t see South Carolina slowing her down either. On the other side, Boston is going to be Boston. Monika Czinano is a talented center, but she’s no match for Boston, who will likely dominate the post matchup.

So, the stars will likely cancel each other out, meaning the winner of this game will be determined by the supporting cast. In that battle, South Carolina is superior. Beal, Victoria Saxton, Zia Cooke and Kierra Fletcher round out the Gamecocks’ starting five, which will go up against Czinano, Gabbie Marshall, McKenna Warnock and Kate Martin. While Iowa has shooters, their ability to score hinges largely on the playmaking skills of Clark, whereas South Carolina’s role players can create their own looks.

Then, there’s the bench. Iowa’s Hannah Stuelke is going to have an incredible future in the program, and Molly Davis has provided exactly what the Hawkeyes needed from her off the bench, but South Carolina has the best bench unit in the country. With 6-foot-7 Kamilla Cardoso and elite point guard Raven Johnson, the Gamecocks don’t experience any drop-off when they go to the bench. It also means they don’t have to worry about foul trouble, a luxury Iowa doesn’t have.

Pick: South Carolina

The matchup between Virginia Tech's Elizabeth Kitley and LSU's Angel Reese will be one to watch. (G Fiume/Getty Images)

LSU vs. Virginia Tech

When it comes to personalities, there aren’t two teams more different than LSU and Virginia Tech. The Tigers find motivation through trash talk and celebrations, while the Hokies prefer to keep their heads down and play basketball. The fact that both teams are here speaks to how important it is for coaches to let their players be themselves. When they embrace personalities, it allows their players to thrive.

When it comes to production, however, LSU and Virginia Tech have similar makeups. They both rely on an elite guard/post combo to power their offenses. For LSU, that’s Angel Reese and Alexis Morris, and for Virginia Tech, it’s Elizabeth Kitley and Georgia Amoore.

Reese averages 23.2 points and 15.7 rebounds per game, while Kitley averages 18.2 points and 10.7 rebounds. This post matchup could be the best of the tournament. As for the guards, Amoore contributes 16.3 points and 5.0 assists per game, while Morris averages 14.9 points and 4.1 assists.

Like in the South Carolina-Iowa matchup, I expect someone other than the stars to step up. It could be a player like Flau’jae Johnson for LSU, who has had a remarkable freshman campaign, or 3-point specialist Cayla King for Virginia Tech.

The 3-point line is going to be key in this game, as the Hokies like to shoot from long range. Amoore set the record for most makes in the first four games of the tournament with 20. King, meanwhile, averages 8.1 points per game, with 6.6 of those coming from beyond the arc. The Hokies are 20th in the country in 3-point makes, while LSU is 249th (out of 361) when it comes to defensive 3-point rate, meaning the Tigers allow a lot of points from deep.

Pick: Virginia Tech

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