2004 Final Four was a turning point for the LSU

Advocate staff photo by Travis Spradling -- Seimone Augustus (left) and former LSU women's coaches Pokey Chatman and Sue Gunter smile during the last minutes of their win over Southeastern Louisiana on Dec. 20, 2003.
Advocate staff photo by Travis Spradling -- Seimone Augustus (left) and former LSU women's coaches Pokey Chatman and Sue Gunter smile during the last minutes of their win over Southeastern Louisiana on Dec. 20, 2003.

If she could have the moment back, Temeka Johnson is sure she could change it.

Nine years ago Thursday, six seconds showed on the New Orleans Arena scoreboard in LSU’s first Women’s Final Four game, the score between the Lady Tigers and Tennessee appropriately tied at 50.

The game could go either way, with either bitter Southeastern Conference rival moving on to the national championship game two nights later.

Temeka Johnson had the ball and, with the ball, the Lady Tigers point guard could be an artist. And a quick one at that.

Tennessee had almost been burned in a similar situation in the Midwest Regional final against Stanford. The Cardinal’s Nicole Powell dribbled the length of the floor and missed a 3-pointer as Tennessee escaped 62-60.

“I said, ‘If I’m ever in that situation again, we double team,’ ” coach Pat Summitt said. “So we double-teamed.”

It turned out to be a fateful lesson for a moment that was more than a season in the making.

Fueled by freshman phenom Seimone Augustus of Capitol High School — she picked LSU over Tennessee in a lengthy recruiting battle — LSU was a No. 1 seed in the 2003 West regional, a first for the program, before falling 78-60 to Texas in the regional final at Stanford.

Poised to make another deep run, the 2003-04 season first took a shocking turn. Longtime coach Sue Gunter became ill just before LSU’s Dec. 30 game with Tulane in New Orleans Arena and missed the next four games.

She returned for games at Arkansas and Georgia. But on Feb. 19, Gunter, a longtime heavy smoker, was diagnosed with acute bronchitis and a viral infection. By then she had handed over the reins to Pokey Chatman, her lead assistant and a former LSU All-America point guard.

With Johnson running the point and Augustus filling up the baskets (she averaged 19.5 points per game that season), the Lady Tigers went into the 2004 NCAA tournament as a No. 4 seed again in the West regional. After wins at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center over Austin Peay and Maryland, LSU headed to Seattle for a Sweet 16 rematch with No. 1 seed Texas.

LSU dominated Texas 71-55 to again reach the Elite Eight. In the regional final, Augustus scored 29 points for the second straight game as LSU closed with an 8-1 run to beat Georgia 62-60.

Gunter was back home in Baton Rouge, but thoughts of her were with an emotional LSU team.

“Everybody adored her,” Johnson said of Gunter. “She was always that one person you didn’t want to disappoint. When Coach Gunter got sick, it was like a rallying point for us. She didn’t allow us to make an excuse for anything.

“So we rallied. We wanted to do everything we could for her.”

Gunter would be the coach of record for the one and only Women’s Final Four of her career, though the night of April 4 she was nowhere to be seen.

She refused to take a seat on the bench or even watch from a suite in New Orleans Arena, waiting instead back at the team hotel.

Tennessee had crushed LSU 85-62 on Feb. 29 in the regular-season finale, but despite that then-Tennessee assistant and current LSU women’s coach Nikki Caldwell knew it was a rematch the Lady Volunteers didn’t want.

“We didn’t want to be on the same side of the bracket with them,” said Caldwell, whose current assistant coach, Tasha Butts, was one of the Lady Vols’ star players that season. “I remember saying that because LSU was my scout. I said, ‘You don’t want to play them again.’ ”

Summitt set her team up in a halfcourt trap with LaToya Davis and Ashley Robinson, and Johnson lost the ball as she tried to split the defenders. Tennessee’s Shyra Ely pushed the loose ball ahead to Davis, who scored the winning layup with 1.2 seconds left.

The loss was crushing to Johnson on many levels. It was the biggest game in program history to that point, and it was played in her hometown. (Johnson prepped at Bonnabel.)

Then there was Gunter.

“I went to her room and apologized to her,” Johnson said. “I was very emotional. She didn’t allow me to be. She told me she was proud of me, that it wasn’t my fault, that she was proud of each of us.

“But for me personally, I felt that last possession of the game I lost it for her, even though I know it doesn’t come down to just that.”

Later that April, Gunter officially stepped down. She lived 16 months after that dramatic night in New Orleans, dying Aug. 4, 2005, from complications due to emphysema at 66.

Chatman went from interim to full-time coach, leading LSU back to Final Fours in 2005 and ’06. She would resign on the eve of the 2007 NCAA tournament amid what turned out to be allegations of sexual misconduct with former LSU players.

Chatman is currently coach of the WNBA’s Chicago Sky. Johnson, who recently joined the WNBA’s Seattle Storm, said she thinks of Gunter often.

“She was more concerned about us becoming successful women,” Johnson said. “She wanted to make sure we were successful — not just for four years but in life.”

LSU would go on to Final Fours in 2007 and ’08. This year’s team reached the Sweet 16 before falling to California on Saturday in Spokane, Wash.

Caldwell said what those Tennessee and LSU teams had is what she is trying to find to get the Lady Tigers back to the Final Four.

“You’ve got to have a thoroughbred,” she said. “That’s where we’ve got to be very committed in finding those players to come here. Then you’ve got to put together the rest of the pieces of the puzzle.”