ALBANY, N.Y. — Already on Friday morning in the bowels of MVP Arena, LSU coach Kim Mulkey was hard at work to create the narrative that her Tigers are the underdog in their Sweet 16 matchup with No. 2 UCLA.

Never mind that LSU is the reigning national champion and that most online sportsbooks have the Tigers favored, and that LSU is equipped with an Associated Press All-American and the Bruins are not.

“You don’t think UCLA is loaded at every position? Look, they’re supposed to win the game,” Mulkey said. “They’re the 2 seed; we’re the 3 seed. But we’re not going to go away. We’re going to fight hard.”

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It is a mindset that is not exactly shared by Mulkey’s star player, Baltimore native and Saint Frances Academy graduate Angel Reese. She is the All-American on this LSU squad. She is the superstar. She is the leader. She is the heart and soul of this team. And she is not afraid of UCLA or its 6-foot-7 center, Lauren Betts.

The 6-3 Reese has heard before that she’s undersize to play in the post. And she’s ready to demonstrate that the doubters are wrong again on Saturday in Albany.

“Of course, people are going to think that I’m not at the advantage,” Reese said. “Of course, I’m not going to be as [good] against bigger players, but I think I’ve proven myself a lot this year playing against bigger players.”

Indeed, Reese is right — she has played well against towering opponents this season, including South Carolina’s 6-foot-7 Kamilla Cardoso, and Virginia Tech’s Elizabeth Kitley and Tennessee’s Tamari Key, both of whom are 6-6. LSU went 2-2 in games against those teams while Reese averaged 15 points, 11.2 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game.

And Reese knows Betts, having shared the court with her last summer on the U.S. AmeriCup team.

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“She’s a really skilled post player,” Reese said of Betts. “Just being able to understand how I can play [against taller players], being able to bring them out of the paint and just use any speed and quickness around them, I think, is going to be my advantage.”

Much of the focus will be on Betts and Reese battling it out in the paint, and for good reason.

While it wasn’t without drama — as questions remain around her mysterious four-game absence in November — Reese had another outstanding season for LSU, leading the Tigers to a 30-5 record while averaging 18.7 points and 13.2 rebounds per game. She’s second in the nation in rebounding and free throw attempts per game (8.2) and 10th in win shares with 6.2.

“Super aggressive, talented inside post player,” Betts said of Reese. “I think I have an idea of what I’m walking into. I think, obviously, Angel and I are going to be really aggressive inside. I think just not falling into foul trouble is super important in this game because Angel is going to try to go through me.”

Betts, a sophomore who was the No. 1 high school recruit in 2022, had a breakout year for the Bruins after transferring from Stanford last offseason. Betts averages 14.9 points and 9.1 rebounds per game while shooting 65% from the floor, which is 11th best nationally. She is often the recipient of assists from fellow sophomore Kiki Rice — a Bethesda native and product of Sidwell Friends School.

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But the matchup with Betts isn’t the only thing on Reese’s mind. She’s thought a lot about Tuesday’s catastrophic collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge and how her aunt drove over it every day to cross the Patapsco River to get to her job.

“I’m not sure the route she’s taking right now or if she’s been able to go to work since then, but my prayers are to everyone that hasn’t been found yet and the ones that are found and are still suffering from injuries,” Reese said. “I’m praying for Baltimore right now, and I hope everything gets resolved.”

The luck of the bracket draw has allowed Reese to play close to home in this round of the NCAA tournament. The other regional site was in Portland, Oregon. Albany is just five hours from Baltimore.

Reese is expecting to see family and friends in LSU purple in the arena on Saturday, and she’s anticipating that one of them will bring her something to help her endure New York’s frigid temperatures.

“I’m happy to be closer to home,” Reese said. “My family is going to come to the game. It’s cold here — and I forgot my coat, but it’s coming tomorrow.”

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While Reese hasn’t totally engaged in Mulkey’s game of painting LSU as the long shot or dark horse in the Albany 2 Regional — one that also includes Caitlin Clark’s Iowa and a Colorado team that bested LSU in the regular-season opener — she recognizes that the Tigers are the hunted and have been all season. They are going to get their opponent’s best game, especially on this stage.

“Everybody wants to beat LSU, and understanding those three letters on your chest mean something,” Reese said. “Everybody in front of you wants to beat you. They want to beat Angel Reese. They want to make a highlight off Angel Reese.”

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