With Flau'jae Johnson finding her rhythm, LSU primed and ready for Iowa rematch in Elite Eight

ALBANY, N.Y. — There’s an intentionality to Flau’jae Johnson. From spin moves, to rap lyrics, to NIL deals, Johnson knows what she’s doing. More importantly, she knows why she’s doing it.

She came to LSU with the intention of being a musician and a basketball player. Other coaches wouldn’t allow it, so she picked one that would. She did an NIL deal with Experian with the intention of educating basketball players about financial literacy. And she stepped on the court on Saturday with the intention of beating UCLA and earning a spot in the Elite Eight.

Intention became reality.

With 6:51 left in the first half, Johnson drove baseline, spinning with such speed that it looked both out of control and perfectly poised at the same time. She stopped on a dime for an effortless two points. Then, Johnson flexes. She looks at the fans and raises her arms. They stand and cheer, and her team perks up. LSU feeds off crowd energy, and Johnson knows that.

“Her energy is contagious,” Hailey Van Lith said after a 78-69 victory. “She has a unique way of making you get hyped and excited about a moment.”

Intentionality isn’t singular to Johnson. The public sometimes misses it, behind layers of sequins and trash talk, but it’s been the driving force for LSU this season.

LSU's Flau'jae Johnson reacts with teammates Angel Reese and Hailey Van Lith during their win over UCLA on Saturday. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
LSU's Flau'jae Johnson (4) reacts with teammates Angel Reese (10) and Hailey Van Lith during their win over UCLA on Saturday. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Everyone has their own individual reasons, and a collective purpose.

It starts with head coach Kim Mulkey and her brash persona. When news of an impending Washington Post article was leaked earlier in the tournament, Mulkey tried to get ahead of it. She read a statement and threatened to sue. Then, she refused to answer any questions. The purpose of her outrage? To keep the article away from her players, and out of their heads.

“It was never a distraction,” Mikaylah Williams said. “Coach Mulkey never made it a thing. Whatever was happening with her happened on the side. For us it was always about basketball.

“We keep the main thing the main thing, and that’s basketball.”

The drama surrounding LSU is seemingly never-ending. Early in the year it was parents chirping about grades. Then it was Angel Reese’s suspension, and Kateri Poole’s removal from the team. Now, the Washington Post story. Somehow, the Tigers navigate everything that’s thrown at them, on and off the court.

“It’s always something with us,” Hailey Van Lith said. “We just are fighting this year. And even in that game, UCLA was playing well. They were going on runs, and we just kept fighting back. And at the end of the day, that is the toughness that it’s going to take to keep playing.”

Flau'jae Johnson of the LSU Tigers celebrates after defeating the UCLA Bruins. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Flau'jae Johnson of the LSU Tigers celebrates after defeating the UCLA Bruins. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Van Lith had her own motivation for coming to LSU. From the outside, her situation at Louisville seemed perfect, and when Van Lith transferred, criticism and confusion regarding her decision followed. It continued as her numbers took a hit. As a junior at Louisville, Van Lith averaged 19.7 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game. Now, she’s averaging 11.8 points, 2.5 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game.

At Louisville, she proved herself as a scorer, and a winner, taking her team to the Final Four as a freshman. Coming to LSU was about pushing her outside of her comfort zone.

“I just wanted to get better in any way that a challenge was going to present itself,” she said. “With how dynamic this team is, with the personality combinations, with it being in Louisiana, it’s all things that I hadn’t been exposed to before. I knew it was going to be a growth experience for me.”

Each day has been something new for Van Lith, and she’s embraced everything that’s been thrown at her.

“I’ve really challenged myself to learn every lesson I can here, and not close myself up and try to get through it.”

Van Lith chose to be uncomfortable, so she can be comfortable when she needs to be. Like at the end of the win over UCLA, when she went to the line and hit four key free throws to help ice the game.

The senior was able to empty her mind, relying on the muscle memory of putting up countless shots, long before she got to LSU.

“One thing I can always control is what I give to the game, and how I choose to go about things,” she said.

Aneesah Morrow had her own box to get out of. The Chicago native chose her college during the COVID-19 pandemic, and didn’t go on any visits. It wouldn’t have mattered much where she went, though, because Morrow wasn’t ready to leave home. So she picked DePaul. But after dominating for two years and missing out on the NCAA tournament, Morrow knew she couldn’t stay in Chicago forever.

“I’m a homebody,” she said. “Coming here was hard. I cried sometimes. There were days where I was homesick, days I wanted a home-cooked meal.”

Morrow missed her mom’s lasagna, and missed seeing her family in the crowd. Louisiana is different from Chicago, and Morrow missed her city, too. But in these moments, she remembered why she transferred. There was a purpose to it all.

“I wanted a place where I could express myself, but also develop my game,” she said. “And I wanted a place where my goals matched their goals.”

Her goal is the same as the rest of the Tigers. The connective purpose that ties together their respective intentions.

“To win a national championship,” she smiles. “Obviously.”