In new surroundings and a very different role, LSU's Hailey Van Lith has gone through a mental evolution

ALBANY, N.Y. — Hailey Van Lith remembers exactly where she was for the 2023 national championship game.

A week after Iowa and Caitlin Clark sent her Louisville team home in the Elite Eight, Van Lith set up at her place and flipped on the TV. She was among the 9.9 million who tuned in to watch a battle of superstar talents in LSU’s Angel Reese and Iowa’s Caitlin Clark.

Van Lith watched LSU games prior to that title-winning performance. But that afternoon, one of the feistiest guards in the sport felt drawn to the emotions of that particular game and related to it.

“It was more just the energy that I could feel through the screen, the energy of the games that I had seen before,” Van Lith said on Sunday. “I was like, I want to play on that team, and so obviously the emotions I felt in that moment definitely played a part in who I chose to reach out to when I was in the portal.”

Nearly one year to the day after watching the title game at home, she and her LSU team will meet Iowa again with a berth in the Final Four on the line. The Albany 2 regional final is on Monday at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN.

A couple of 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-altering decision in the sport, but also for her personally. She was used to being the face of her team, a superstar who came up clutch in the lead role and read all the positives that came from it.

Now, facing constant critiques and pressure on a team with a magnifying glass, the negatives forced her to do self-work on the way she once allowed it to feed her and impact her mentally.

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

Hailey Van Lith's numbers are down since she arrived at LSU, but she's happier to be on a team playing for a shot at the Final Four. (Photo by Greg Fiume/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)
Hailey Van Lith's numbers are down since she arrived at LSU, but she's happier to be on a team playing for a shot at the Final Four. (Photo by Greg Fiume/NCAA Photos via Getty Images) (Greg Fiume via Getty Images)

Much of the critiques center on her depressed numbers. She scored a career-best 19.7 ppg last year to rank top 25, but dropped to 11.7 with LSU. Her 40.3% clip on 2-pointers is the worst of her career after staying at a steady 46% every season prior. And she has struggled in moments fitting into a new system with new teammates while moving into the role of point guard. Both WNBA scouts and hoops fans noticed.

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

“I would rather be known as a winner than a scorer because at the end of the day, if all you're going to ask me to do is score, that's something that 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 carried 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 played a “heck of a game” against UCLA with five assists, one turnover, three steals and her one crucial rebound, plus a charge at the end of a close game. That’s despite only seven points in a tight contest.

“Those things matter when you're a point guard trying to control a game and hang on to a win,” Mulkey said. “She's got to keep doing that. She'll hit some jumpers.”

Van Lith used to feed off of people’s remarks about how good she was overall, in a game, in a moment. She wanted to see and read people confirm what she thought about herself. That she was a great player who could score points and defend hard, a key feature of head coach Jeff Walz’s system at Louisville.

When she knew ranking articles like the “top 25 players in the Sweet 16” were about to come out, she’d stress all night waiting and dig in as soon as it hit.

“I used to be the girl that would be like, this girl's above me, this girl's above me [and] this girl,” Van Lith said. “There's a part of me that still is alive, but I know how to control it now to where it only can benefit me and it can't hurt me. I feel like that's where the growth has been.”

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) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Last-Tear Poa, a sophomore guard who subs in for Van Lith, described Van Lith as “tough skinned.” Poa always heard from her mom the phrase that, good or bad, at least they’re talking about you. But that doesn’t mean you need to listen to it.

“With her, she’s one of our star players just ignoring it,” Poa said. “The only people you should be listening to is your circle.”

Van Lith was not on this year’s ESPN Sweet 16 top players list, nor has she been mentioned much when the game’s superstars are listed out in articles or news conferences. With the noise so loud and negative almost from the moment LSU lost to Colorado in the season opener, she realized she couldn’t feed into the talk anymore. She’s shut off social media and doesn’t read what everyone is saying about her.

“You really just can't give any energy to that stuff,” she said. “Because what matters is only going to matter if I say it matters. And so if I'm really stressed about how these people are talking about me, that means I care a lot about it and I probably think it's half-ass true because I'm so worried about it.”

Contrary to what outsiders have said about it, Van Lith said on Friday that she’s really enjoying her life this year. She thinks she’s handled refs better than she ever has in her career and won’t be consumed over what they’re calling.

“I’ve learned how to control my competitiveness to where it can get me to my peak, but it doesn’t go over too much to where I’m obsessing,” she said.

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

Or, she could renounce 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 they think her work ethic will give her an opportunity on a WNBA team. She participated in Kelsey Plum’s Dawg Class, a course designed to prepare college players for the league. And the self-work she’s done this year is part of that preparation.

“I'm at the point where hopefully I'm going to be a pro soon, and college and pros are different,” Van Lith said. “You really got to fend for yourself at the pro level.”

Van Lith learned how to do that this year even if most didn’t see it.