UCLA vs. LSU is America’s sweethearts vs. its basketball villains

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This isn’t just a basketball game, it’s a reckoning. Picking sides goes well beyond school allegiance.

Update:

10:10 p.m. March 30, 2024A previous version of this commentary did not meet Times editorial standards. It has been updated.

Do you prefer the team that wants to grow women’s basketball or the one seemingly hellbent on dividing it?

The coach who embraces reporters or the one who attacks them?

When UCLA plays defending national champion Louisiana State on Saturday at MVP Arena in the Sweet 16 of the Albany 2 Regional, the contrasts don’t stop with blue and purple.

UCLA players celebrate as they walk off the court after a win over Creighton during the NCAA tournament

UCLA players celebrate as they walk off the court after a win over Creighton during the second round of the NCAA tournament Monday at Pauley Pavilion.

(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

Some might see this as inclusive versus divisive.

There’s little debate as to which side of the ledger Tigers coach Kim Mulkey falls on. Long after she reportedly failed to support Brittney Griner, in essence telling her gay star to keep her sexual orientation to herself, Mulkey has stumbled again in the wake of an imminent Washington Post profile on the veteran coach.

Last week, Mulkey threatened to sue the newspaper without knowing the contents of the story, labeling it a “hit piece.” Without naming the reporter, she described the Post’s Kent Babb as “sleazy.” She slammed the paper for giving her a deadline to respond to questions while also disclosing that she had refused requests going back two years to sit for an interview.

In doing so, Mulkey turned a non-story into a blockbuster. How many more readers will that Post story get as a result of her grandstanding?

Just as befuddling, Mulkey sidestepped the issue Friday, refusing to address the story she created. The first two questions Mulkey fielded at her media session involved the Post story. The coach dropped the ball each time.

Reporter: “What’s it been like kind of waiting for that story to come out?”

Mulkey: “I did make a statement, and that’s all I’ll comment on at this time because all I am focused on is to try and win another basketball game. Thank you for asking, though.”

Reporter: “Not to belabor the point, but from what you have been told or what you have been asked … ”

Mulkey: “I’m only here today to talk about the next game.”

How convenient for someone who couldn’t stop talking about the story less than a week ago. She’s only mum when it suits her.

Mulkey’s best player also can’t get out of her own way. A year after she taunted Caitlin Clark by giving the Iowa superstar the ring finger and mocking Clark’s hand-waving gesture late in the national championship game, Angel Reese is at it again. When Middle Tennessee’s Anastasiia Boldyreva fouled out of a second-round loss to LSU, Reese waved goodbye as a crying Boldyreva headed to the bench.

LSU's Angel Reese points to her ring finger as Iowa's Caitlin Clark walks by during a game.

LSU’s Angel Reese points to her finger as Iowa’s Caitlin Clark walks by during the Tigers’ 2023 national championship win on April 2 in Dallas.

(Tony Gutierrez / Associated Press)

The wave led to significant blowback on social media, sparking a virtual shrug from Reese.

“clickbait everything i do keep going viral,” Reese posted to the social media platform X, formerly Twitter, after the game.

Then there’s UCLA, which operates in the saintly shadows while being as wholesome as a miniature stuffed Bruin mascot. UCLA coach Cori Close gives reporters unfettered access to players and practices, repeatedly thanking them for trumpeting the emergence of the women’s game.

She’s unfailingly cheery, loudly announcing her presence early Friday morning after the team’s flight was delayed by 2½ hours and arrived close to midnight.

“Coach is here!” Close said joyfully in a corridor outside the interview area.

Her players reflect her sunny disposition while being as controversial as a pledge drive for underprivileged children.

“She’s a little bit cornier than us,” senior guard Charisma Osborne said, “but yeah, I think she really sets the standard.”

UCLA coach Cori Close smiles during Bruins' game against rival USC on Dec. 30.

UCLA coach Cori Close smiles during Bruins’ game against rival USC on Dec. 30.

(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

So, maybe they really are America’s sweethearts?

“Sure, I kind of like that,” star forward Lauren Betts said.

Said Osborne: “I like it too!”

Added Betts: “But don’t get it twisted — we’re not sweethearts on the court. It doesn’t mean we’re soft.”

They also won’t give in to easy narratives. Betts and Osborne disputed the notion that Reese lacked class, and they should know — they played with her for Team USA last summer.

“She’s an amazing teammate and I really enjoyed playing with her,” Betts said. “I think she’s an amazing person and obviously when it comes to basketball you’re trying to win, so it’s like, whatever you have to do to win, I don’t think that people should judge her for that.”

Said Osborne: “She’s really nice off the court as well and people don’t always see that.”

Everyone can see for themselves Saturday. How will the nation’s most polarizing team conduct itself versus the one known for its class? The reckoning is here.



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