Rabalais: Lady Tigers take one giant step at a time

SPOKANE, Wash. — Women’s college basketball is a highly stratified game.

While the power curve in men’s basketball is a gradual descent from the perennial Final Four powers down to the First Four participants, the women’s game is a pyramid-like progression from top to bottom.

At the very top are teams like Baylor, Notre Dame, Connecticut and Stanford, the No. 1 seed here in the Spokane Regional. On the next plateau reside teams like California (LSU’s opponent Saturday), Tennessee, Kentucky and Penn State (LSU’s previous victim), among others.

The LSU program has known what it was like but a handful of seasons ago to occupy a spot on the top plateau. And after sliding down a few steps since their last of five straight Women’s Final Four appearances in 2008, the Lady Tigers can tell you first-hand that to climb back up the pyramid takes a little luck, moxie, grappling hooks and a hardy Sherpa guide.

But one game can change a lot. That game came Tuesday for LSU, which with a small but fierce band of resisters earned a berth in the Sweet 16 with a 71-66 upset of Penn State.

It’s been five years since LSU made it this far. That the Lady Tigers got here with seven players against a team the caliber of a high-plateau dweller like Penn State is the stuff of Dale Brown’s giant-killer dreams.

With one win, LSU moved the goalposts of its program back in the direction it and every team wants to go — up. It’s a bar that’s set incredibly high at LSU, as high as the catwalk ringing the top of the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.

Despite the fact LSU has never managed to win a Final Four game — men’s or women’s — the Lady Tigers’ five straight trips from 2004-08 is a remarkable achievement. Only two other women’s programs — Connecticut (twice) and Stanford — have done it.

Those five Women’s Final Four banners hanging from the PMAC catwalk are dripping with symbolism. They are tangible examples of the daunting expectations that current and future LSU teams have to clear and what the program can accomplish.

If LSU is to again be the program it was, it had to break out of the cycle of first-round wins and second-round losses that the Lady Tigers were caught in during their past three NCAA tournaments.

This team did that — this ragtag, battered team that was even farther from the Sweet 16 back in February at 13-10 than the 2,300 miles that lie between Baton Rouge and Spokane.

With apologies to Adrienne Webb, who has saved the best ball of her career for the very last act of it, and fellow senior Bianca Lutley, this is likely the least talented team Nikki Caldwell will put on the court at LSU. A five-star prospect in Raigyne Moncrief joins the backcourt next year, the kind of player LSU will need to return to the top plateau.

The Lady Tigers can accelerate the redemption process with a victory over California late Saturday night/early Easter morning.

But a loss won’t erase the fact that LSU has taken a meaningful, next-level step back up the pyramid.