Danielle Ballard powers LSU women past Georgia Tech in NCAA opener

During Saturday’s pre-tournament news conferences, LSU’s Danielle Ballard was asked what it would be like going up against Georgia Tech’s All-ACC guard, Tyaunna Marshall, in Sunday’s NCAA tournament first-round matchup.

“I know it’s going to be tough defending her,” Ballard said. “In my mind, I’m going to say I’m better than her.”

That brash comment elicited a reach-in foul from LSU coach Nikki Caldwell, sitting nearby on the podium.

No coach likes bulletin board material. Any coach would like the way Ballard backed up her bravado, though.

Creating off the dribble, pulling up for soft jumpers, burying free throws and, perhaps most impressively, weaving into the lane for a career-high 17 rebounds, the 5-foot-9 sophomore guard poured in 24 points to personally wreck Tech in LSU’s 98-78 victory in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.

The win sends LSU (20-12), the No. 7 seed in the Louisville regional, into Tuesday’s second-round game against No. 2 West Virginia, a 76-61 winner over No. 15 Albany. Tipoff is set for 8:30 p.m., and the winner advances to the regional semifinals March 30 in Louisville, Ky.

No. 10 seed Georgia Tech (20-12) came into the game averaging 79.7 points and 44.5 rebounds compared to 69.6 and 38.7 for LSU.

But with Ballard punching the pedal, the Lady Tigers were more than up to the task of running and rebounding with the Yellow Jackets.

LSU set school records for points, points in a half (51 in the first) and rebounds (57) in an NCAA tournament game. Georgia Tech managed just 30 rebounds — nearly 15 under its average.

The Lady Tigers also committed 23 turnovers against the Yellow Jackets’ pressing defense, tying a school record in NCAA play, but it hardly seemed to matter.

“I think we saw out there today why LSU was ranked top 12 in the country early in the season,” Georgia Tech coach MaChelle Joseph said. “I really felt they were clicking on all cylinders. When you have a guard like Danielle Ballard step up and get 17 rebounds, that’s a physical effort. I just thought she was really difficult to guard on both ends of the floor.”

The win looked like many of LSU’s first-round NCAA tournament romps through the years.

The Lady Tigers won their 16th straight NCAA opener dating to 1997 and improved to 9-0 in first-round games in the PMAC.

What it didn’t look like was the way LSU played entering the tournament. The Lady Tigers dropped eight of their previous 10 games after starting the season 17-4.

But Caldwell put her team through what she called “boot camp” style practices in the two weeks since they bowed out of the Southeastern Conference tournament, the heavy emphasis on rebounding.

“It was a totally different team today than I saw the last 10 games on film,” Joseph said.

Ballard didn’t disagree.

“This team is a different team,” she said. “We had a different mindset. People are going to continue to see a different team.”

All-SEC forward Theresa Plaisance also had a double-double, her ninth of the season, with 21 points and 11 rebounds.

Center Shanece McKinney had 14 points, six rebounds and six blocks. DaShawn Harden came off the bench for 17 points, and Jeanne Kenney had 11.

Marshall and Sydney Wallace led Georgia Tech with 20 points each.

The only sour note for LSU was the loss of freshman guard Raigyne Moncrief. Making her first start since Feb. 20 at Georgia because of a right knee injury, Moncrief fell to the court with 15:45 remaining as she injured her left knee trying to drive to the basket. She had to be helped from the court, her status unknown for Tuesday.

LSU never trailed, bolting to a 10-0 lead on a three-point trip by Ballard at the 17:30 mark of the first half.

Georgia Tech pulled within two points several times, but LSU pushed away with a late 9-4 run keyed by two free throws and a basket from Ballard to take a 51-44 halftime lead.

The Lady Tigers pulled away to a 64-50 lead by the 16:17 mark of the second half on a layup by McKinney. The Yellow Jackets made it an eight-point game on a jumper by Wallace with 13:27 to go, but LSU pushed its lead up to 20 over the next six minutes.

“We felt as though we conditioned and have been conditioned to keep that pace,” Caldwell said. “The team that really pushes through that point of exhaustion can come up with those easy baskets, make those layups, get some runouts and we were able to do that.”

Now the Lady Tigers will try to keep running against a talented West Virginia team, all the way to their second straight Sweet 16 appearance.