COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Maybe eight’s going to be enough after all.
The LSU Lady Tigers, without sufficient players to have a full scrimmage, continued their late-season surge Sunday, overcoming a slow start with a strong second half to beat No. 13 Texas A&M 67-52 in the regular-season finale.
It was the sixth straight victory for LSU (19-10, 10-6) which, combined with Tennessee’s loss to Kentucky on Sunday, makes the Lady Tigers the SEC’s hottest team heading into the league tournament.
LSU, the No. 6 seed, will play Auburn at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Gwinnett Center in Duluth, Ga.
A team that was on the NCAA bubble when the streak began now can do nothing but enhance its seeding for the first- and second-round games that will be played at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center later this month.
“No doubt LSU’s the team you don’t want to run into right now,” said Nell Fortner, who did the TV analysis for the SEC Network on Sunday. “Sometimes having so few players works in your favor. There’s no options, so everybody just settles in and plays better.”
LSU coach Nikki Caldwell agreed.
“This team has become a better team,” she said.
“And when you do what they’ve been doing as of late, you gain a lot of confidence in yourself. It’s something they’re gaining every day and every game.”
Sunday’s victory was the third against a ranked team in the streak but might have been more impressive than the ones at home against No. 9 Georgia and No. 8 Kentucky.
Texas A&M (21-9, 11-5) was commemorating Senior Day, and a crowd of 7,678, the largest of the season, turned out at Reed Arena.
And the Aggies at least should have been playing with a sense of urgency, given that they’d lost three of four and were in danger or dropping out of a top-four seed in the NCAA tournament.
LSU, with an eight-player roster, certainly had every reason to have a letdown — all things considered — especially against a team that had beaten them 74-57 at home just a month ago.
The Lady Tigers seemingly did that, taking more than 15 minutes to reach a double-digit point total and letting themselves be outhustled as they fell behind 22-9.
“We started out the game playing really selfish and not really working together,” junior forward Theresa Plaisance said. “And we could have easily gotten complacent because today wasn’t going to change our (SEC) tournament seeding much. But then we started playing as a unit, which is when we’re at our best. That makes coming in here and winning like this really up there.”
By halftime, LSU had cut its deficit to 24-20, and the second half belonged to the Lady Tigers.
Playing with hustle that had been absent for most of the first half and getting shots to fall, including a pair of 3-pointers early by Plaisance, LSU went ahead at 26-25 on, after an and-one by freshman Danielle Ballard, it never trailed again.
The team that missed 13 of its first 18 shots and was outrebounded 20-10 at one point, made 20 of its last 31 shots and won the rebounding battle 23-16 after being doubled up early on. The Lady Tigers also made 13 of 14 free throws.
“Coach (Caldwell) really got on us about not playing as a team,” Ballard said. “It was kind of like we hit a wall there at the first. We took out their best player” — Kelsey Bone, who had nine points in the first half and four in the second — “and it all sort of came together.”
Plaisance led LSU with 16 points, and Ballard scored 15. More importantly, Ballard scrambled for 11 rebounds, following up the 14 she had in Thursday’s victory against Alabama.
“We really count on her,” Caldwell said. “Her steals and rebounds really let us get out a lot quicker in our transition game.”
Texas A&M coach Gary Blair said Sunday’s result showed how much LSU has improved in just a few weeks.
“Our practices were good this week, and I don’t know how much harder we could have worked today,” he said. “They adjusted their offense, and their kids started seeing what would work for them. We looked like we’re in the lightweight division and we were playing a heavyweight.
“We just physically could not stay with them on one-on-one situations, and right now they’re a better basketball team than we are.”
Still, Caldwell acknowledged, asking a team so shy in numbers to win four games in four days at the SEC tournament would be asking a lot. But Plaisance said the players don’t pay much attention to that any more.
“There’s nothing we can do about it,” she said. “We know to expect to play a lot of minutes and all of the intangibles that go with it. If you get tired, you just work through it.”
And, Ballard added, the Lady Tigers are looking beyond this week.
“The rankings don’t mean anything, and the names of the teams we’re playing don’t mean anything,” she said. “They way we’ve come together as team, we’re ready to take on anybody.”
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