LSU women’s basketball team surged late season

Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- Guard Danielle Ballard celebrates after LSU's 71-66 win over Penn State on Tuesday, March 26, 2013, in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.
Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- Guard Danielle Ballard celebrates after LSU's 71-66 win over Penn State on Tuesday, March 26, 2013, in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.

Two months ago, their goal was simply to avoid the indignity of having to sweep floors and carry water for teams playing in the NCAA tournament on their home court.

Then they started to win. And the goal for the LSU Lady Tigers changed from not being embarrassed to not giving in to their limitations.

“Our dream was to get into the tournament,” LSU guard Jeanne Kenney said. “Once we got in the tournament, our goal was the Sweet 16. Once we got to the Sweet 16, we made another goal. Once we made the tournament and got that first game under us, we felt there was no stopping us.”

Eventually, though, the eight remaining players on an LSU team with a rallying cry of “Eight is enough” saw their reach exceed their grasp.

After battling hard for 30 minutes against No. 2 seed California on Saturday night in the Spokane Regional semifinals, the Lady Tigers finally couldn’t keep pace and saw their season draw to a close with a 73-63 defeat.

The record book will say LSU went 22-12 this season. In the annals of a program that has reached five straight Women’s Final Fours and had five 30-win seasons, it won’t look particularly exceptional.

But despite not cutting down a net or winning a championship — the Florida International Thanksgiving Classic notwithstanding — the Lady Tigers have never had a season like this one.

Coming off a 23-win season in Nikki Caldwell’s first year, the Lady Tigers were supposed to have 11 players. Then talented freshman forward Krystal Forthan, a likely starter, stunningly transferred to West Virginia before winding up at Utah.That left 10.

Then Caldwell kicked freshman guard Coco Baker off the team for violations of unspecified team rules. That left nine.

Soon Sheila Boykin was lost for the season with Guillain-BarrĂ© syndrome. That left eight — at least when Kenney wasn’t in and out of the lineup with knee, foot and head injuries.

LSU wasn’t even on the NCAA tournament bubble Feb. 7 when it blew a three-point lead to Tennessee in the final minute and lost 64-62, slipping to 13-10 and 4-6 in Southeastern Conference play.

Not just a game, but the entire season seemed to be slipping away. Still, Caldwell remained defiantly confident.

“I don’t know what I would do,” she said even before the Tennessee loss if her team didn’t earn an NCAA bid. “I honestly don’t. I don’t want to even think about it because it’s not going to happen. It had better not happen. So we had better find a way.”

LSU did. A 62-54 upset of then-No. 9 Georgia, which plays Cal in Monday night’s regional final, started the Lady Tigers on a run of seven straight wins to end the regular season.

Georgia earned a measure of revenge by knocking LSU out of the SEC tournament with a 71-53 quarterfinal rout after the Lady Tigers opened with a 65-62 win over Auburn, but the defeat did little to dent LSU’s momentum. The Lady Tigers went into the NCAA tournament as a No. 6 seed in Baton Rouge.

Then Kenney got dented. A collision with teammate Adrienne Webb in the last minute of LSU’s 75-71 first-round win over Green Bay left Kenney with a concussion and put her out of a second straight second-round showdown with Penn State. But with only seven healthy players, Webb scored a career-high 29 points as LSU shocked the Lady Lions 71-66 to reach the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2008.

The dream ended there, but not the pride Caldwell had in her team.

“We have battled, and we have hit adversity and we have been challenged,” she said. “It looked like there wasn’t a chance for us to even have our name called on Selection Monday. These young ladies came together and decided to fight — fight for one another and put LSU back on the map as a dominant program.”

Along the way, forward Theresa Plaisance went from a former role player to an All-SEC forward who finished the season averaging 17.0 points. Freshman guard Danielle Ballard earned All-SEC freshman honors, averaging 12.1 points and leading the conference with an LSU single-season record 100 steals.

Webb was an All-SEC second-team pick, averaging 14.6 points for the season and a team-best 16.1 in LSU’s final 11 games.

Webb and fellow senior Bianca Lutley will be gone, but Plaisance said the remarkable run her team went on to end the season will have it setting lofty goals again next year.

“This season has really given us a taste of what we’ve been missing out on the last couple of years,” said Plaisance, whose team missed the NCAA tournament her freshman year. “Now that we’ve gotten to this point, there’s no looking back. We’re going to be hungry for the Elite Eight and the Final Four.”