LaDazhia Williams was having trouble talking about the joy of playing for the undefeated LSU women's basketball team.
But only because she was hoarse.
It was the morning after the Tigers' 79-76 win over Arkansas on Jan. 19, and the former Lakewood Ranch High star's voice had to keep up with the Pete Maravich Assembly Center crowd, which produced more noise than she ever had heard in the building.
Combined with the excitement of the moment, her voice took a beating even if her team didn't.
The win kept alive LSU's dreams of a perfect season, giving the Tigers a 19-0 record. It was LSU's first win to be decided by a single-digit margin.
Williams transferred to the Tigers from the University of Missouri following the 2021-2022 season. She said the game was a wake-up call of sorts for her team. Not only did it force the Tigers to stay engaged the whole time, it proved they could play their best when it mattered the most, something the team will have to do more of if it wants its dreams of an NCAA championship to become reality.
After Williams spent two years with Missouri, following two years at the University of South Carolina, she's now a graduate student at LSU. After years of trying to find her place as a basketball player, Williams landed in a program and a school that feel like home to her.
"I wanted to stay in the SEC and I had seen what Coach (Kim Mulkey) had done for other post players in the past," Williams said. "I wanted the chance to be coached by her, too."
Mulkey arrived at LSU in 2021 after winning three NCAA championships at Baylor University, where she coached for 21 seasons. The Bears' success came in large part because of post players like Brittney Griner, Lauren Cox and Kalani Brown, all of whom were named All-Americans and now play professionally.
Williams said Mulkey has preached a defense-first philosophy at LSU that requires playing smart basketball. She has focused on being in the right position to block off opponents driving to the basket and playing "help defense" in tandem with her teammates. Combined with Williams' inherent length — she is 6-foot-4 — and the length of fellow star forward Angel Reese, who is 6-foot-3, the Tigers are a brick wall in the post. LSU has allowed just 51.9 points per game, which is sixth best in the NCAA.
Considering the talent Mulkey has coached, her words about Williams carry weight. After the team's game against Arkansas on Dec. 29, a 69-45 win, Mulkey used her postgame press conference to praise Williams for her effort.
"LaDazhia Williams set the tone for us defensively," Mulkey said. "She had 15 big rebounds, but it's what she did in helping on cutters, on drives. It's what you hope a senior will do who has been in this league and has played a lot of basketball. She needs to get a lot of attention."
That part might be difficult for Williams, who is averaging 8.5 points and 5.7 rebounds per game for the Tigers, while playing next to Reese, who leads the country with 24.2 points and 15.6 rebounds per game. Williams said playing next to Reese is easy because you always know what you're going to get from her.
"She plays hard, but she's a great motivator, too," Williams said of Reese.
It was Reese who led the charge in LSU's second win over Arkansas, scoring 30 points and hauling in 19 rebounds. Williams scored 11 points and brought in 12 rebounds for her second double-double of the season. Like Williams, Reese transferred to LSU last offseason from the University of Maryland. LSU also has two freshmen, Flau'Jae Johnson and Sa'Myah Smith, getting heavy minutes. Williams said that many key players learning Mulkey's system together helped develop team chemistry early in their training.
It is chemistry that is paying off now. Against Arkansas, the team never panicked despite the Razorbacks shooting 58% from the floor in the second half. They trusted their coaching and talent and came out with a win. Williams said it was the best moment of her season thus far.
"We needed that (push)," Williams said. "It showed us that we can stick together no matter what. It showed us the importance of leadership and playing team basketball."
After four years of trying to find the right fit — on the court and off of it — Williams has found LSU to be what she needed, and her to be what LSU needed. Her defense has shined and her rebounding gives LSU's talented shooters second chances when they miss.
Back in the South, Williams is playing up to her billing.
"I'm happy (at LSU)," Williams said. "I like the culture. The food is good. I'm just enjoying my time."
Ryan Kohn is the sports editor for Sarasota and East County and a Missouri School of Journalism graduate. He was born and raised in Olney, Maryland. His biggest inspirations are Wright Thompson and Alex Ovechkin. His strongest belief is that mint chip ice cream is unbeatable.