BATON ROUGE, La. — LSU star forward Angel Reese, who has missed four games for undisclosed reasons, is rejoining the No. 7 Tigers in advance of their matchup with ninth-ranked Virginia Tech on Thursday night.

“She will play tomorrow,” LSU coach Kim Mulkey said Wednesday. “It’s a boost having her back, period. It’s not just against Virginia Tech. It’s just for our team. She’s just a tremendous player, one of the best players in the country.

“I really think Angel will just be like Angel,” Mulkey added. “She’s just been really good in practice.”

Reese foreshadowed her return when she posted on social media a photo of herself inside LSU’s basketball stadium, the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.

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The timing of Reese’s return is convenient for defending national champion LSU — and not just because its next game is a rematch of last season’s national semifinal. Two games ago against Niagara in the Cayman Islands tournament, LSU power forward Sa’Maya Smith went down with a knee injury. On Wednesday, Mulkey said Smith is out for the season with ligament and meniscus tears in her right knee.

“Timing is everything in life, and the timing of her injury is just so sad for her because she has improved by leaps and bounds,” Mulkey said. “The timing of Angel being back kind of helps, but there’s no substitution for the value that Sa’Maya has to our team and what she’s meant thus far.”

LSU basketball star and Baltimore native Angel Reese hosted a basketball clinic at Saint Frances Academy on July 19, 2023. Reese watches as the young women do layups on the court and offers them words of encouragement and high-fives.
Angel Reese hosted a basketball clinic at Saint Frances Academy in July. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

Mulkey has declined to go into detail about why Reese was not with the team for much of the past two weeks beyond saying it stemmed from “locker room issues.”

But Mulkey said she expected Reese’s return to go smoothly in terms of her relationship with teammates and coaches.

“We’re past it. We were past it after it happened. Really,” Mulkey said. “It’s just fun to watch them high-five and pick each other up off the floor and just do what they do, play basketball. We’ve been past it. It’s just we have to come in here and answer questions and that becomes aggravating.”

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Reese, who is one of the most popular and commercially successful players in her sport, missed games at Southeastern Louisiana and against Texas Southern in Baton Rouge, and she did not accompany the team to the Cayman Islands for a holiday tournament. LSU defeated Niagara and Virginia in the Cayman Islands Classic last weekend.

Reese also was benched for the second half of a victory over Kent State on Nov. 14.

The Tigers (7-1) won all of the games Reese missed, most of them by wide margins, and have not lost since dropping their opener in Las Vegas to then-No. 20 Colorado, which briefly rose as high as No. 3 before dropping back to No. 7 — tied with LSU — after the Buffaloes’ first loss to North Carolina State last weekend.

Reese started LSU’s first four games, averaging 17 points and 10.3 rebounds as the Tigers went 3-1.

Mulkey, a four-time national championship-winning and Hall of Fame coach, has defended her decision to hold back specifics about the nature of Reese’s absence, saying it was an internal team matter about which the public didn’t need to know.

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“I can’t sugarcoat things. I feel like people want the truth, but ... I’m going to protect my players,” Mulkey said. “There’s a sacredness in that locker room, and I’m from that school that what’s in that locker room stays in that locker room.”

Reese was LSU’s on-court leader last season, when the Tigers won the program’s first national title. LSU defeated Virginia Tech in the Final Four before knocking off Iowa in the championship game.

Since then, Reese has appeared in numerous national advertising campaigns and accumulated endorsement opportunities worth more than $1 million, including with Reebok.

Her popularity stems in part from her combination of style and ferocious play. She is known as the “Bayou Barbie,” in part because of her painted nails and eyelash extensions, and she has expressed an interest in modeling.

Yet she is fiery on the court, staring down opponents after swatting away shots, diving on the floor for loose balls or celebrating with a short dance move after big baskets. She famously once blocked a shot with one hand while holding one of her shoes that had come loose in the other. She dominated a second-round NCAA tournament game against Michigan last March with dried blood on her face and a fat lip with gauze under it after she’d been inadvertently struck in the mouth.

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Last season, she averaged 23 points and 15.4 rebounds — and set an NCAA record with 34 double-doubles in a season.

But while her unfiltered public persona has made her a charismatic figure in women’s basketball, it also has brought controversy.

Reese is known to say she is “unapologetically me,” can accept being portrayed as “the bad guy” and doesn’t back down from criticism that some of her actions rub fans and competitors the wrong way.

That happened at the end of last season’s national championship game, when she gestured triumphantly at Hawkeyes star Caitlin Clark. And afterward, when she took issue on social media with first lady Jill Biden’s suggestion that both LSU and Iowa be invited to the White House because their matchup was so enthralling.

Reese said she’d rather visit the family of former President Barack Obama but wound up attending LSU’s celebration with President Joe Biden and the first lady.