BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — Kellie Harper was among the millions watching Angel Reese and LSU capture the national title.

It was a high point both for the Southeastern Conference, which also had South Carolina in the Final Four, and women’s college basketball. A record 9.9 million viewers watched LSU beat Iowa 102-85 in the national championship game, more than double the previous year.

Harper, who has her own powerhouse program at Tennessee, couldn’t help yelling at the TV, “Yes, SEC!”

What’s next, SEC? All that would be hard to top, though Kim Mulkey’s Tigers enter the season at No. 1 with Reese back, along with two of the nation’s top transfers.

And South Carolina is now the chaser instead of the chased after losing all five starters from a team that had been ranked No. 1 all last season and won its first 36 games before falling to Iowa.

The 11th-ranked Lady Vols have one of the top scorers in the league back in forward Rickea Jackson (19.2 ppg) from a team that made the Sweet 16 and lost to South Carolina in the SEC championship game. No. 12 Mississippi has its first preseason ranking since 1995.

“The SEC is really good,” Harper said. “We were really good last year. I think we’re better this year. I really do. The players, the coaches. There’s just so many dynamic people in our league. We know it’s going to be competitive.”

The Tigers had never won a national title in either men’s or women’s basketball, though Mulkey arrived with three national titles at Baylor, plus two as a player and one as an assistant at Louisiana Tech..

“She tells us all the time. She’ll let us know she’s been there and done that,” Reese said. “She humbles us a lot of times. We listen to her.”

Her team is the favorite to repeat behind the All-American Reese, SEC freshman of the year Flau’Jae Johnson and transfers Hailey Van Lith and Aneesah Morrow. Mulkey can appreciate the massive television audience from that final game and the state of women’s basketball more than most.

“I’m 61 years old. Only one game was ever televised when I was playing,” Mulkey said. “So in my world it’s pretty salty right now.”

Van Lith led Louisville to the 2022 Final Four. Morrow ranked in the top seven nationally in both scoring (25.7 points) and rebounding (12.2) at DePaul as a sophomore last season.

“Last year we were the hunter,” Johnson said. “Now we’re the hunted. I think it kind of (leads) you to want more, knowing that you’re going to get everybody’s best shot this year.”

Reese’s popularity exploded after her championship showdown with Iowa’s Caitlin Clark. Reese was the Final Four most outstanding player and has since posed in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, appeared in a music video with Latto and Cardi B and built an Instagram following of 2.6 million. She even has a sponsorship deal with Reebok.

Reese said all that fame hasn’t sidetracked her from the goal of trying to repeat.

“What got me to where I am right now is LSU and winning a championship,” she said, adding: “We all want it again.”

The Gamecocks had their run of 38 straight weeks atop the poll end. But like every year since 2014, Dawn Staley’s team ranks in the Top 10.

Staley must replace a starting five that was led by 2022 national player of the year Aliyah Boston, who was the No. 1 WNBA draft pick.

Kamilla Cordoso, though, averaged 9.8 points and 8.5 rebounds off the bench. Te-Hina Paopao was a three-time All-Pac 12 performer at Oregon who shot 42.4% from 3-point range last season.

Staley said doing the hunting instead of always being hunted is “not a bad place to be.” Just don’t call it a rebuilding process.

“It’s not a rebuild for us because we’re very talented,” she said. “We’ve got talent on our team. We just lack a little bit of gameday experience.”

Guard Bree Hall said the team can embrace the role as a so-called underdog.

“I’d say we love it, honestly,” Hall said. “We’re ready for the fight and to be chasing others.”

At Ole Miss, the Rebels are far removed from the team that went 0-16 in the SEC in the 2019-20 season. They lost to a veteran South Dakota team in the NCAA Tournament two years ago and fell to Sweet 16 regular Louisville last season.

“If we’re going to continue with this trend, then we should be a Final Four team,” coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin said. “The experience is definitely something that you cannot rush, you have to kind of go through.”


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