ALBANY, N.Y. — Initially, Angel Reese tried to hold back the tears. She sniffled, she bit her lip, she looked away.

Then, as teammates Flau’jae Johnson and Hailey Van Lith praised and defended her, she decided to let them flow. They trickled out of the corners of her eyes and down her cheeks. Johnson leaned over and wiped one away, and then Reese took the sleeve of the black letterman jacket she was wearing — the one with the initials of her alter ego, “BB” for Bayou Barbie, stitched onto her left chest — and soaked up the rest.

“Man, let me tell you something,” Johnson said during a postgame press conference in MVP Arena, where Reese’s No. 3 LSU lost to No. 1 Iowa 94-87 in the Elite Eight Monday night. “Everybody can have their opinion on Angel Reese, but y’all don’t know her. Y’all don’t know Angel Reese. I know Angel Reese. I know the real Angel Reese, and the person I see every day is a strong person, is a caring, loving person. But the crown she wears is heavy.”

Van Lith, unprompted, chimed in: “I think Angel is one of the toughest people I’ve been around. People speak hate into her life. I’ve never seen people wish bad things on someone as much as her, and it does not affect her. She comes to practice every day. She lives her life every day. She lives how she wants to live, and she don’t let nobody change that.”

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For once, in that moment, Reese allowed herself to be vulnerable. She didn’t have to put on a mask. She didn’t have to be tough. She didn’t feel the need to embrace villainy. She was just a young woman from Baltimore, one who has unapologetically embraced the spotlight and allowed herself to be a vehicle for unprecedented growth to women’s college basketball, and one who is a tremendous player who plays with an often-unmatched competitive fire.

Caitlin Clark of the Iowa Hawkeyes shoots the ball over Angel Reese of the LSU Tigers during the first half in the Elite 8 round of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament at MVP Arena. (Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

And in this moment, sitting on a stage in a hallway, she was reckoning with an emotional loss, one that came in what might’ve been the final game of her collegiate career. And she reflected on everything that has happened in the last year, since she powered LSU to its first-ever national championship in Dallas, Texas — by beating Iowa — and everything that came with the cost of fame that winning brought her.

“I don’t really get to stand up for myself,” Reese said. “I mean, I have great teammates. I have a great support system. I’ve got my hometown. I’ve got my family that stands up for me. I don’t really get to speak out on things just because, I just try to ignore, and I just try to stand strong. Like, I’ve been through so much. I’ve seen so much. I’ve been attacked so many times, death threats, I’ve been sexualized, I’ve been threatened, I’ve been so many things, and I’ve stood strong every single time.”

Reese was no different on Monday night. In defeat, she was stoic, even though many would have understood if she had not been. On the court, her emotions never got the best of her.

Minutes before that passionate press conference from the LSU players, they were all on the court. And, again, for the ninth time in the game, Caitlin Clark drained a 3-point shot with a Tigers defender nearby. This one came in the fourth quarter with just over five minutes left to play and it pushed Iowa’s lead to 11 points. The crowd — the one that chanted for the Hawkeyes several times before — roared. Then Clark turned to her left and faced them, letting out a scream of her own and pounding her chest with her right fist.

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On LSU’s next possession, Iowa’s Kate Martin somehow wrestled a ball away from Reese, one of the nation’s best, most-tenacious and sure-handed rebounders. Martin then connected on a layup of her own.

This sequence proved to be the dagger. It all but ended LSU’s title defense. It settled the score between the Tigers of Baton Rouge and the Hawkeyes of Iowa City, of the superstar guard from West Des Moines and the illustrious forward from Baltimore, who have drawn in millions of fans new and old over the past year.

Clark piled up 41 points, 12 assists and seven rebounds in front of an announced crowd of 13,888 fans.

Only one question remains unsettled now: Was this game the end of Angel Reese’s collegiate career?

If it was, the fourth-year 6-foot-3 forward with one year of eligibility remaining went out with a valiant effort, collecting 17 points, 20 rebounds, four assists, three blocks and two steals in 36 minutes of play before fouling out with 1:45 left in the fourth quarter.

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Reese’s fifth and final foul was an offensive one, as she battled for positioning in the post. After the whistle, she raised her arms up, not to shrug, but to express a gesture of helplessness at a call that seemed a bit soft, to say the least. She walked over to the LSU bench and embraced Johnson, while coach Kim Mulkey patted her on the back. Reese remained engaged in the game, standing, clapping, cheering, calling out assignments — but her teammates couldn’t put a significant dent in the deficit.

Ahead for Reese now, after this gutting defeat, is an important decision. Within 48 hours of this loss, she must decide whether to declare for the WNBA draft — where many predict she’ll be a top 10 pick — or come back to college for one more season.

Sitting in the corner of LSU’s locker room after the game, longtime assistant coach Bob Starkey reflected on what Reese has meant to this program, one that had produced several exceptional players and reached the Final Four five previous times, but never tasted a national title until Reese decided to transfer to LSU from Maryland in 2022.

“It’s really hard to quantify because there’s so many layers to it,” Starkey told The Baltimore Banner. “Obviously, the basketball layer — she’s highly competitive, and I think that’s contagious for teammates. I think she’s been a leader on the floor, but more importantly, off the floor. She’s a huge fan favorite, because she makes herself accessible. And there’s a lot to be said about that. There’s a lot of people that shy away from celebrity, she’s not one. She’s just a very, very special young lady.”

If this was indeed Reese’s final game in women’s college basketball, she reminded everyone why her play has garnered so many fans, which in turn has earned her countless endorsement deals, and turned her into one of the biggest stars this game has ever seen.

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Of the many signature qualities Reese brings to the game is her grit, resiliency and steadfastness, no matter the situation.

Reese began to make her mark on the contest after a media timeout about four minutes into the first quarter. The Tigers trailed by eight points, and Clark had already swished two 3-pointers while Reese struggled early on. Then, after that break in action, she took over.

Angel Reese of the LSU Tigers looks on during the first half against the Iowa Hawkeyes in the Elite 8 round of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament at MVP Arena on April 1, 2024 in Albany, New York. (Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

It began with her dishing out two assists, which turned into 3-pointers from Mikaylah Williams and Last-Tear Poa. Reese then grabbed an offensive rebound and put it back in for her first points of the night. Then, with 1:35 to play in the first frame, Reese announced her presence with an exclamation point. With perfect timing, she jumped a passing lane to pick off Clark, beat the Iowa star in a race to other end of the court, sank a layup and then let out a yell as LSU took a one-point lead — capping off an 18-9 LSU run.

At the 8:01 mark in the second quarter, the game’s two trailblazing stars were again matched up with one another. While trying to guard a driving Clark as she made her way towards the rim, Reese fell out of bounds near the basket stanchion and seemed to roll her ankle. She hopped off the floor on one foot and took a seat on the bench as trainers attended to her.

Reese then limped away from the courtside seats to find room to stand and stretch her leg out, all the while, her eyes were transfixed on the action on the hardwood. She started to walk behind the bench, testing the leg, while resting her hands on her hips, watching the game unfold and the seconds tick off the clock. When Aneesah Morrow missed a jumper with 6:48 to play in the quarter, Reese shook her head, then made a beeline for the scorers’ tables, jogging past Mulkey without regard. Reese had decided she was good enough to play and she was going back in.

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She then immediately posted up Hannah Stuelke, called for the ball, took one hard dribble and lofted up a right-handed floater over the Iowa sophomore that fell through the hoop. It’s clear to everyone watching that Reese’s mobility and athleticism are now hindered, but she isn’t letting that stop her from making a positive impact on win-or-go-home contest.

“I’m tough, so I tried to play through it, of course,” Reese said. “I’m not going to make that excuse for the rest of my play for the game.”

That run of play reminded Starkey of the first time he saw Reese on LSU’s campus.

“The very first time we had a scrimmage with her, she had like 30 points and 25 boards. I hadn’t seen that tenacity at practice,” Starkey said. “I think she’ll be a great pro. She’ll have the chance to win some gold medals. And what I’m really proud of, she’ll be special off the court too.”

It would’ve been easy for a player like Reese to hang her head in the final moments of the game as she sat on the bench, but she never disengaged, even while it seemed like a sure thing that LSU was going to lose. When Johnson hit a pull-up 3-pointer in transition — cutting the Iowa lead to seven points with just eight seconds to play — Reese rose out of her seat and lifted three fingers in the air.

“I just try to stand strong for my teammates,” Reese said. “Because I don’t want them to see me down and not be there for them.”

When the buzzer sounded, she kept her composure. She clapped, she held up her younger teammates. In the handshake line, she shared quick and tight hugs with both Iowa assistant coach Jan Jensen and Clark — the formidable opponent she’s been pitted against on the court and in narratives for the last year.

As confetti rained down on the Hawkeyes, Reese disappeared with her teammates through a tunnel into the shadows of the bowels of the arena, for perhaps the final time while wearing LSU’s purple and gold. Only Reese knows if it was, and while the clock ticks, she’s in no rush to reveal what her future holds.

Said Reese: “I’ll make a decision when I’m ready.”

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