In a new environment and in a very different role, LSU’s Hailey Van Lith has undergone a mental evolution

By | April 1, 2024

ALBANY, NY – Hailey Van Lith remembers exactly where she was during the 2023 national championship game.

A week after Iowa and Caitlin Clark sent her Louisville team home in the Elite Eight, Van Lith moved in with her and turned on the TV. She was one of 9.9 million who tuned in to see a battle of superstar talents in LSU’s Angel Reese and Iowa’s Caitlin Clark.

Van Lith watched LSU games leading up to that title-winning performance. But that afternoon, one of the feistiest guards in the sport was drawn to the emotions of that particular game and its coherence.

“It was more just the energy I could feel through the screen, the energy of the matches I had seen before,” Van Lith said on Sunday. “I was like, I want to play on that team, and so the emotions I was feeling at that moment obviously played a role in who I wanted to contact when I was in the portal.”

Nearly a year to the day after watching the title game at home, she and her LSU team meet Iowa again with a spot in the Final Four on the line. The Albany 2 Regional Final is Monday at 7 PM ET on ESPN.

A few weeks after that game, Van Lith transferred to LSU as a graduate student from Louisville, where she reached the Final Four as a sophomore. It was a landscape-changing decision in sports, but also for her personally. She was used to being the face of her team, a superstar who took the lead role and read all the positives that came from it.

Now facing constant criticism and pressure on a team with a magnifying glass, the negative factors forced her to do self-work in the way she once let it fuel her and impact her mentally.

“A lot of people have a lot to say about how this year went for me,” Van Lith said ahead of the Sweet 16 matchup, “but one thing they can’t argue with is that right now I know how to root for Hailey caring and I know how to fight for Hailey and that’s going to help me at the next level.

Hailey Van Lith's grades have dropped since she arrived at LSU, but she's happier being part of a team fighting for a shot at the Final Four.  (Photo by Greg Fiume/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)Hailey Van Lith's grades have dropped since she arrived at LSU, but she's happier being part of a team fighting for a shot at the Final Four.  (Photo by Greg Fiume/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

Hailey Van Lith’s grades have dropped since she arrived at LSU, but she’s happier being part of a team fighting for a shot at the Final Four. (Photo by Greg Fiume/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

Much of the criticism focuses on her depressive figures. She scored a career-best 19.7 ppg last year and finished in the top 25, but fell to 11.7 with LSU. Her 40.3% clip on two-pointers is the worst of her career after staying at a steady 46% every season before. And she has struggled at times fitting into a new system with new teammates while taking on the role of point guard. WNBA scouts and hoops fans alike took notice.

Still, LSU is one win away from a repeat Final Four berth here with Van Lith in the role.

“I prefer to be known as a winner rather than a goalscorer, because in the end if you just ask me to score, then that is something I can definitely do,” Van Lith said on Sunday.

There have been bright spots as she fits into a role on a team of star scorers that includes forward Aneesah Morrow, a transfer from DePaul, and guard Flau’jae Johnson, who has helped LSU through the first three rounds. Van Lith is averaging a career-high 3.6 assists and one fewer turnover than the career-high she posted as a junior.

LSU head coach Kim Mulkey, who was a point guard in her college days, said Van Lith had a “great game” against UCLA with five assists, one turnover, three steals and her only crucial rebound, plus a charge at the end. of a close game. This despite only seven points in an exciting battle.

“Those things are important when you’re a point guard trying to control a game and hold on to a win,” Mulkey said. ‘She must continue to do that. She’ll hit some jumpers.”

Van Lith always fed off people’s comments about how good she was overall, at a game, in a pinch. She wanted to see and read that people confirmed what she thought about herself. That she was a great player who could score points and play tough defense, a key feature of head coach Jeff Walz’s system at Louisville.

When she knew that rankings items like the “top 25 players in the Sweet 16” were about to come out, she would emphasize waiting all night and get to work as soon as the time came.

“I used to be the girl who would say: this girl is above me, this girl is above me [and] this girl“, says Van Lith. “There is a part of me that is still alive, but I now know how to control it so that it can only benefit me and not hurt me. I feel like that’s where the growth has happened.”

LSU guard Hailey Van Lith (11) reacts during the second half of a basketball game against Rice in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday, March 22, 2024 in Baton Rouge, La.  (AP Photo/Matthew Hinton)LSU guard Hailey Van Lith (11) reacts during the second half of a basketball game against Rice in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday, March 22, 2024 in Baton Rouge, La.  (AP Photo/Matthew Hinton)

LSU guard Hailey Van Lith (11) has learned this season to control her emotions on the court and not dwell on outside criticism. And she’s in a better place because of it. (AP Photo/Matthew Hinton)

Last-Tear Poa, a second-year guard who replaces Van Lith, described Van Lith as “tough-skinned.” Poa always heard from her mother the phrase that, good or bad, at least they talk about you. But that doesn’t mean you have to listen to it.

“With her, she’s one of our star players who just ignores it,” Poa said. “The only people you should listen to are your circles.”

Van Lith was not on ESPN’s Sweet 16 top players list this year, nor is she mentioned much when the game’s superstars are mentioned in articles or press conferences. Because the noise was so loud and negative, almost from the moment LSU lost to Colorado in the season opener, she realized she couldn’t participate in the conversation anymore. She has shut down social media and doesn’t read what everyone says about her.

“You really can’t give energy to that,” she said. “Because what matters only matters when I say it matters. And so if I’m really stressed about the way these people are talking about me, that means I care a lot and I probably think it’s only half true because I worry about it so much.

Contrary to what outsiders say, Van Lith said on Friday that she is having a great time this year. She thinks she handles referees better than ever before in her career, and won’t worry about what they call.

“I’ve learned how to control my competitiveness to where it can take me to my peak, but it doesn’t go too far beyond what I’m obsessed with,” she said.

When LSU’s season is over, whether it’s at Iowa or next weekend in Cleveland, Van Lith will have a new decision to make. She could stay at LSU or transfer in the final year of the COVID-19 eligibility waiver.

Or she could waive her eligibility and enter the 2024 WNBA Draft, where she was once a projected first-round pick. Scouts told Yahoo Sports’ draft analyst Jackie Powell that they believe her work ethic will earn her a shot on a WNBA team. She participated in Kelsey Plum’s Dawg Class, a course designed to prepare college players for competition. And the self-work she has done this year is part of that preparation.

“I’m at the point where I’ll hopefully be a professional soon, and college and pros are different,” Van Lith said. “You really have to take care of yourself on a professional level.”

Van Lith learned that this year, even though most did not see it.

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