Angel Reese doesn’t need to be liked, but she and LSU demand your respect.

ALBANY, NY – There was joy, because of course there is when a team survives and advances in March. Flau’jae Johnson, who scored 24 points and led LSU past UCLA, jumped toward the Tigers’ family and friends in the stands with a big, bright smile.

But about 15 minutes later, Johnson’s guard went up again as he sat next to Angel Reese and Aneesah Morrow during a postgame news conference. So was Reese’s. Tomorrow’s too. Yes, the Tigers were happy to advance to the Elite Eight. But they know exactly how the world sees them and they don’t always appreciate it.

“We’re the good villains,” Reese said. “Everyone wants to beat LSU. Everyone wants to be LSU. Everyone wants to play LSU. You have to realize that we are not just any basketball team. Coach (Kim Mulkey) talks about it all the time; she calls us ‘The Beatles’. People run after our bus. People come to our games. You’re seeing sold out tickets, you’re seeing people buying t-shirts, you’re seeing more tickets sold than men.

“We are impacting the game a lot and we are all super competitive and want to win and do whatever it takes to win. “We’re just changing the game.”

Reese pointed out that she is criticized for her modeling, which she likes in addition to basketball. “I can do both,” she said. Johnson is regularly asked about her second career as a rapper. “Flau’jae can do both.”

“We can all do both,” Reese continued. “That’s what people don’t believe. They don’t believe we’re focused, and we prove it every night, when we get between those lines, that we’re focused. “That’s what worries us.”

“Just being able to have teammates that have my back, have teammates, have coaches that support each other all this time. “I don’t care what the outside (world) thinks,” Reese said. “I know what’s going on in that locker room.”

Before the season and at times during it, many outside the program wondered how it would work (adding in Louisville’s Hailey Van Lith and DePaul’s Morrow) with only one basketball to share. And with a coach who isn’t afraid to say what he wants about it (and isn’t afraid to bench a star either).

“People are always telling us how we should act, how we should dress, how we should talk,” Johnson said. “But there have never been people who have done this before.”

She is correct. These LSU players have lived at the forefront of the name, image and likeness era, balancing their lives as students, athletes and business owners in a way we have never seen.

Mulkey tells them to be who they are and she says she will fight for them. She played on Saturday in a Los Angeles Times Column who said his team represented the “evil” against the “good” of UCLA and that the Tigers were “dirty debutants.”

“How dare people attack children like that?” Mulkey said. “You don’t have to like the way we play. You don’t have to like the way we talk trash. You don’t have to like any of that. We’re fine with that. But I can’t sit here as a mother, grandmother and youth leader and allow anyone to say that.”

This is what LSU wanted to talk about after a thrilling and thrilling win over UCLA on Saturday. It’s what this coach and these players think and face every day. And it’s largely because of the way this team was introduced to most of America: with last year’s title game, with the taunting, with all the talk (which they supported).

So Mulkey and Reese feel similar again as they prepare for a rematch against Iowa. They don’t need to be liked, but they demand to be respected. As long as the Tigers keep winning and chasing a second straight national championship, that’s what they’ll hope for.

“We won at the highest level in college and we haven’t had peace,” Reese said. “But I wouldn’t want to change that to this day. I wouldn’t want to change where we are now. “I wouldn’t want to change the three letters on my chest because they mean something and I want to be part of history.”

(Photo of Flau’jae Johnson, left, and Angel Reese: Andy Lyons/Getty Images)