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How Healy Van Leith Fits In With LSU: Fire-breathing point guard in curls

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In early October, before any team’s habits were revealed to the world, Louisville began practicing with a continuous shooting drill. Up and down the floor, run to run in jump poses, mid-range jumps and three tokens, and sprint to a predetermined score before the clock runs out. The Cardinals failed on the first attempt, which was bad enough. When the second attempt was another failure, the weight weighed on Keuber’s center. Like the air itself is confined, squeezing all the oxygen out of space.

The coaches weren’t happy. This was starkly obvious and stinging. They were also not alone in this. Haley Van Leith stood on the baseline with her hands on her hips, panting and breathing heavily, shifting her weight from side to side. I waited for it to open. Then the silence was subtly filled by a safe vault falling from the mezzanine.

“If you guys can’t run, hold yourselves accountable and sit down,” Van Lith told her teammates. “If you can’t hang, don’t run.”

So here’s what LSU gets, if anyone had any doubts, in the most important transition gate outcome of the women’s college basketball season: breathing fire into the Curls. A personal asteroid wouldn’t erase the atmosphere in Baton Rouge so much as turn it into hitherto undiscovered colors along the spectrum. The defending National Champions could not have been made more provocative, in the literal sense of the word. Then Hailey van Lith decided that she would go there now.

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Oh, what fun. “Everything she is about, she supports,” said Morgan Jones, who spent four years feuding with Van Leith at Florida State before teaming with her at Louisville in 2022-23. “As if she’s not just a player who talks and talks. She walks on it too. You can’t really argue with her, because she puts the work into it and it shows on the court. She lives up to all of her expectations.”

Those expectations rose with this decision. But maybe that’s the whole point.

LSU is in a different context to basketball after the events of April 2, 2023. It is a program where the best of the best is the only standard that applies anymore. (People at Van Lith’s former school might argue the pub is no less, but LSU has a trophy that Louisville still doesn’t.) LSU doesn’t need Van Lith to prove anything. Her 1,553 points and two appearances on the NCAA Tournament All-Region teams aren’t the final word on her added value. It is the starting point for discussion.

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Van Leith goes from being everything to being part of something, while at the same time being pressured to transcend anything she’s done before.

She’s a 5-foot-7 guard who averages 15.7 points per game and fuels, as one ACC coach put it, a “killer” game from midrange. Also potentially a playmaker to thrive at the next level, Van Lith collectively has more turnovers than assists in her college career. Perhaps it’s not fair to assign Van Leith’s assist average of 17.5 percent last season against the nation’s leader in that category — Caitlin Clark, at 48.4 percent — but even the 10th-ranked passer, posted by Drexel’s Maura Hendrickson, is a close second. 37.1 percent. Meanwhile, Van Lith’s Win shares per 40 minutes (.170) are the fewest of her career and nowhere near as close to the realm of American peers as fellow freshman Angel Reese (.435), Villanova’s Maddie Siegrist (.404), South Carolina’s Alia Boston (.380) and Clark (.367).

However, these women did not play on teams with double-digit losses while also carrying individual burdens of production. Perhaps Louisville, from a basketball perspective, needed Van Leith too much. LSU may need something else. “She’s at her best in clutch situations, when an opponent upsets her and when she decides to put the team on the back end of the game,” the ACC coach, who was not named, told a free scouting report on Van Leith. . “Her focus and efficiency can fade throughout a game, especially if she doesn’t feel engaged, gets separated from her teammates or is struggling to score. And she needs to improve her 3-point shooting and assist-to-turnover ratio.”

We don’t know what the results will be. We know exactly what the approach will be.

Van Leith is not sure. She is, more precisely, unaware that it is possible that she cannot be the best at things. To wit: While discussing accommodations at the brand-new Denny Crum Hall last fall, the conversation turned into cake. Specifically, how Van Leith makes the tastiest brownie anyone has ever tasted. Her grandmother’s recipe, which she (Van Leith) keeps in lockdown. Made only every two months, because that’s all the world’s worth. Or if she’s feeling generous, she’ll strike them down on a special request, as when her brother Tanner asks them for his birthday every year. “I would say he’s famous,” said Van Lith. “Everyone says it’s an 11 out of 10. So it’s pretty good.”

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Her baking skills, of course, are not the point. Nor, in fact, is an obsession with being better than everyone else. Any high-performance athlete has that.

It’s more than most humans understand that they can be less than, after all, in everything they do. This did not happen to Hailey van Leith. There is a lot of empty space where this possibility should be. You live in willful denial of any other reality. When she and other children in her Wenatchee, Washington, neighborhood played games, she made rules and kicked people out, if necessary. “I was just a queen, I guess,” she said. “I had to rule the field.” When her family played the game of life, if Van Leith didn’t end up as a doctor, she ordered a reboot. “I had to (have) the top job,” he said.

It is her way, and there is no other way. For the end must be the end, and there is no end other than what you conceive. And if you don’t like it, well, you probably can’t hang it and have to sit outside. “I just pissed people off,” said Van Lith, wearing that self-assessment like a badge. “I was so annoying and wanted to say I was better than everyone else. I was always born with this super competitive edge for me. And that’s what grew into what it is today.”

If you imagine this being difficult to handle, consider the burden of dealing with Hailey Van Leith when you are Hailey Van Leith.

Her impossible standards nearly turned her into a husk early on in her time in Louisville, when bad shooting was all over the world, escalating into a night of mental self-sacrifice with the lights out in her room. Especially as a freshman, she couldn’t process that college basketball is actually tough and doesn’t always bend to her whims. “It honestly made me hate basketball,” said Van Lith. She has given so much to the sport. Why didn’t the sport give her what she wanted in return?

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“Everything was the end of the world or the top of the mountain,” Van Lith said. “There was no middle ground. Mentally, I would destroy myself over any failure, or what I could see as failure. It was, like, a trauma. That’s all I can say.”

You will arrive at LSU somewhat free of this load, but perhaps only somewhat. Halfway through her sophomore season, Van Lith began to allow herself to feel happy in the game again. She no longer punishes herself for bad practice by locking herself in her room to watch a movie and do her homework. “I allowed myself to be a normal person,” she expresses. But the 2021-22 season also ended in a Final Four round you didn’t fully enjoy. In Van Leth’s view, the outsiders thought Louisville wasn’t necessarily meant to be there, and then the Cardinals lost to South Carolina in the National Semifinals, leaving her feeling teased that she would let everyone have the right. Even months later, with all the odds on the table for her junior season, Van Leith couldn’t deny that she was still upset. No one is supposed to be right but her.

It’s reasonable to expect that Van Leith isn’t too bothered now, even after she and her team overcame 11 losses prior to the NCAA Tournament with a run to the Elite Eight. At some point, she apparently decided that Louisville was no longer a place where she could have what was coming to her. So, yeah, she had to leave. Because he’s coming for her. This is her credo. This cannot be denied.

Now the defending heroes, seemingly in need of a lot, tap into the healthy tension of Hailey Van Leith’s world. There is work to be done at LSU to acclimate, to become what you expect to become as a player, to prove yourself right, to take control in general. Sure enough, she’s coming to Baton Rouge thinking there’s only one way this is going to end up.

(Photo by Hailey van Lyth: Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

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