Flau’jae Johnson gives LSU women the spark they need to pull away from Missouri

After Angel Reese finished a layup through contact, Flau’jae Johnson, crouching a few feet to her right, slapped the Pete Maravich Assembly Center floor three times.

Johnson didn’t score that basket halfway through the second quarter Thursday against Missouri. She didn’t even assist it. But she did set it up by hustling in transition, closing a large gap with a heavy sprint and sailing across the lane to block an open layup attempt by a Missouri guard.

With that block, she jolted the LSU women’s basketball team to a 92-72 win, providing the spark that the No. 7-ranked Tigers (14-1) needed to break free from a close battle, and ultimately, distance themselves from a pesky Missouri squad in their Southeastern Conference opener.

LSU, the nation’s leader in free-throw attempts and makes, didn’t earn a trip to the foul line until Reese drew contact on that layup. At that juncture, four minutes of the second quarter had ticked away, the game was tied 27-27 and LSU had already committed three turnovers in the period.

From that moment on, LSU outscored Missouri (9-5) by 20 points.

“That just shows you how one play can change the whole momentum,” Johnson said. “Going hard for that one play can change the whole trajectory of a game, so I’m glad I did that.”

Missouri’s trapping zone defense clogged LSU’s driving lanes, shrunk its windows for entry passes and kept Reese and Morrow off the glass, limiting the opportunities they could find for second-chance points.

In the first half, LSU grabbed only two more rebounds than Missouri. It shot only eight free throws. And it allowed Missouri to grab seven offensive boards and convert 5 of 16 attempts from 3-point range. Missouri star forward Hayley Frank, with her 3-point shooting prowess, pulled Reese away from the rim and out on the perimeter, where she hit four shots from long range.

It all meant that LSU had to fight for the win. Missouri erased its usual advantages in rebounding and free-throw attempts peppered it with 3-pointers, outscoring it by 15 points in the category across the first two quarters. The Tigers from Baton Rouge had to find an advantage elsewhere.

Which they did — after finally earning trips to the foul line. LSU finished the night shooting 17-of-21 from the stripe, where they gained a 10-shot advantage over Missouri.

“I think, from start to finish,” coach Kim Mulkey said, “Flau’jae was outstanding tonight.”

Largely thanks to six free throws by Reese, Last-Tear Poa and Mikaylah Williams, LSU closed the first half on an 8-0 run and entered halftime with a seven-point lead.

From there, Johnson and Williams gave LSU another wave of scoring that pushed its lead to 17 halfway through the third quarter. First, Williams nailed a 3-pointer, LSU’s first of the game, from the left wing. Then, Johnson buried a 3 from the exact spot on the next possession, before grabbing a rebound and finishing a coast-to-coast layup through contact on the other end.

In the third quarter, LSU outscored Missouri by 15, thanks to its trio of 3-pointers and an adjustment to its defensive strategy, which called for the Tigers to switch screens more often in the second half than they did in the first.

“I thought at stretches, we matched them, we matched the intensity and the physicality of the game,” Missouri coach Robin Pingeton said. “But there were some stretches, especially in that third quarter, that hurt us.”

Johnson, in her best outing of the new season, finished with 24 points, five rebounds, three steals and three assists. She shot 11-of-17 from the floor.

Morrow, who eclipsed 1,000 career rebounds on the night, was LSU’s leading scorer. She chipped in 25 points, 10 rebounds, two steals and a block.

After the game, Mulkey said that she and Reese, who added 21 points, 13 rebounds and four assists, defended Frank and the rest of Missouri’s shooters out on the perimeter as well as any post players she’s ever coached.

But overall, the LSU coach said she thought her team allowed Missouri to score too many points, shoot at too high a percentage overall (43.8%) and convert too many triples (nine).

Only one LSU player, Poa, earned minutes off the bench before the score was out of hand. Johnson, Reese, Morrow and Williams each logged at least 37 minutes of action.