LSU women’s, UConn men’s basketball teams celebrate NCAA titles
The LSU women’s and UConn men’s basketball teams visited the White House to celebrate their NCAA championship wins.
Ariana Triggs, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — Nearly two months after winning its first national championship, the LSU women’s basketball team took the traditional visit to the White House on Friday – a celebratory afternoon that was briefly interrupted by a scary moment, when an LSU player fainted on the podium.
Forward Sa’Myah Smith, a rising sophomore, collapsed midway through congratulatory remarks from President Joe Biden in the East Room and received medical attention before being helped out of the room in a wheelchair. LSU coach Kim Mulkey told the gathered crowd that Smith was OK and wanted to stay with the team but needed to be leave to be further evaluated by doctors.
The incident temporarily halted what was otherwise a joyous afternoon for the Tigers, and the star-studded political leaders that assembled to meet them, including President Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and each of their spouses.
The afternoon featured LSU star Angel Reese handing a commemorative jersey to Dr. Jill Biden, posing for a photo and giving her a hug – a coda to the public back-and-forth between them that garnered headlines last month.
After attending the Tigers’ 102-85 victory over Iowa in the national title game, the First Lady made an offhand suggestion that her husband should extend White House visits to both teams “because they played such a good game.” The comment was likely meant to be a compliment for Iowa, but it prompted backlash from the Tigers and Reese in particular. She referred to Biden’s suggestion as “A JOKE.”
“I just know if the roles were reversed, it wouldn’t be the same,” Reese said during an appearance on the “I Am Athlete” podcast a few days later, after Biden’s press secretary tried to walk back her comments.
“You can’t go back on certain things that you say. You felt that they should have came because of ‘sportsmanship,’ right? (Iowa) can have that spotlight; we’ll go to the Obamas. We’ll see Michelle. We’ll see Barack.”
By the end of the week, LSU had confirmed that its women’s basketball team would visit the White House, if invited. And Reese said on ESPN that she would join her teammates.
“I’m a team player,” Reese said. “I’m going to do what’s best for the team, and I’m the captain. I know the team would love it.”
So there Reese was Friday, standing in the front row as Harris called LSU’s team “a group that defines excellence in every way.” The Tigers won 34 of their 36 games, including a lopsided victory in the title game.
President Biden used the event as an opportunity to stump for more media coverage and investment in women’s sports, while also jokingly nodding to the frequency with which Mulkey has been to the White House.
“This is getting old hat for the coach,” President Biden said to laughter. “She’s been here with 19 presidents!”
This was actually Mulkey’s fifth visit to celebrate an NCAA title. In brief remarks, she noted that this was the first trip in which family members of coaches and players were invited to join. “That touches my heart,” Mulkey said.
Mulkey and her players were not made available to speak with reporters after the visit.
Women’s basketball champions have been routinely honored at the White House since the mid-1980s, but their celebratory visits have become more sporadic in recent years. Former president Donald Trump did not extend invitations to many championship teams in women’s sports during his tenure, and the COVID-19 pandemic made such visits impossible.
The men’s title-winners, the Connecticut Huskies, also visited the White House later Friday. After praising UConn as one of the premier college basketball programs in the country, President Biden said he heard that one of the team’s top players, Jordan Hawkins, used to play one-on-one with his cousin, Reese.
“So I’ve set up a basketball court on the South Lawn,” Biden said to laugher. “I just want you to know that after this, we’re all going down there to see that one-on-one game.”
Hawkins said he was floored that the president called him out by name.
“I was like, ‘oh, (expletive).’ That was pretty cool,” Hawkins said. “I didn’t expect that at all. Definitely going to tell my grandkids (about that).”
UConn coach Dan Hurley, meanwhile, described visiting the White House as “one of the greatest honors in team sports.” After beating San Diego State in the men’s national championship game and cutting down the nets, Hurley recalled that one of the first things he did after walking into the locker room was turn to his assistants and say, “I think we’re going to the White House.”
“It’s just such a special experience,” Hurley said. “One that just makes all the sacrifices, and all the struggles, it just makes it all worth it. None of us will ever forget a day like this.”
National champions in an unspecified number of other collegiate sports are scheduled to jointly celebrate at the White House next month. Georgia, the most recent College Footbally Playoff winner, will not be in attendance however, citing scheduling conflicts.
Contact Tom Schad at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Tom_Schad.