Rabalais: A familiar, yet challenging, path awaits

History won’t help the LSU Lady Tigers put a ball through the net, snare a rebound or have a call fall their way in this year’s NCAA tournament.

Still, there’s no denying some tantalizing parallels between this year’s team and the one that hung the first Women’s Final Four banner from the Pete Maravich Assembly Center catwalk back in 2004.

That team played its first two NCAA tournament games in the PMAC, beating Austin Peay and Maryland. Then LSU traveled far out west to Seattle for a regional where it toppled Texas and Georgia for the right to return home to New Orleans for a Final Four showdown with Tennessee.

An 11-year-old Theresa Plaisance was in the stands in New Orleans Arena that night.

“It was so many years ago,” said Plaisance, 20, describing the game like it took place in ancient Mesopotamia or before cable TV. “It was a great experience, just sitting in the crowd and growing up in New Orleans (and thinking) LSU is who I wanted to play for. Wearing that purple and gold at the Final Four was tremendous.”

The only thing that would be more tremendous would be to actually wear the purple and gold in a Final Four game.

The path would be a familiar one for LSU, even if the bread crumbs along the way have long since been scattered to the winds.

LSU opens tournament play Sunday at home against Green Bay. A win would put the Lady Tigers in a second-round game Tuesday against Penn State or Cal Poly, with the winner of that game getting shipped out to Spokane, Wash., for the regional.

Then it’s back to New Orleans for the first Women’s Final Four there since the one the Lady Tigers played in nine years ago.

Any trip to college basketball’s promised land is a special one and the goal of every team that first suits up in October. But for LSU, the only team from Louisiana in the tournament, a contest in its backyard on the women’s game’s biggest stage would be unbelievably sweet.

“It’s definitely extra special to be able to play your whole way through the first couple of games and the Final Four in your home state,” said Baton Rouge’s own Jeanne Kenney. “It’s definitely a great perk, but we haven’t looked that far ahead yet. We’ve got Green Bay on Sunday.”

There is good reason for LSU players not to start deciding how they will divvy up their Final Four tickets.

For one, LSU isn’t as highly seeded it was back in 2004, when it was a No. 4. A No. 6 seed like LSU reaching the Final Four in the men’s tournament would hardly raise an eyebrow. But in the women’s tournament — where the No. 1 seeds all reached the Final Four last year — it would almost rival a Miracle on Ice kind of achievement.

Ice-shrouded Green Bay, the No. 11 seed, has won as many games (29) as perennial power Connecticut this season. That’s all. The Phoenix is experienced and talented and gritty, as Green Bay coach Kevin Borseth described his squad, which is ranked 20th and probably should be at least an 8 or 9 seed.

And if LSU survives, it likely gets a date with No. 3 seed Penn State, the two-time defending Big Ten champion which rocketed past the Lady Tigers 90-80 in the second round here last year.

“I looked at the bracket and thought, ‘We’re going to have a tough road,’ ” LSU coach Nikki Caldwell said. “But the competitive side of me says you’re going to have to play the best. (It’s) the top 64 teams in the country that’s left.”

The good news for LSU is the Lady Tigers have taken the measure of a number of teams down the stretch run of their season that are the equals of squads like Green Bay and Penn State. Teams like Kentucky and Texas A&M and Georgia, which are seeded Nos. 2, 3 and 4 in their respective regionals.

But even earning that golden ticket to the Spokane Regional would be an exceptional achievement. The road is that tough and that pockmarked with hazards.

But at least the Lady Tigers know the way — all of the 5,000-mile round trip between Louisiana and Washington and back.