Theresa Plaisance wore a 1,000-yard stare as Jeanne Kenney sat next to her trying to explain the LSU Lady Tigers’ latest defeat.
“We know we’re a better team than our record, but we can’t seem to put it together on the floor,” Kenney said after her Lady Tigers blew a 15-point second-half lead and fell 57-53 Sunday to an Arkansas team that certainly didn’t come to the Pete Maravich Assembly Center on a championship roll itself.
In a span of three tailspinning weeks, LSU has tumbled from Southeastern Conference championship contender and a team pushing for a No. 2 or 3 seed in the NCAA tournament to some sort of basketball purgatory.
The Lady Tigers, No. 19 in last week’s Associated Poll but almost certain to fall out now, dropped to 18-9 with their fourth straight loss and fifth in their past six games.
LSU is still tied for fifth in the SEC with Vanderbilt and Florida at 7-7, just a game back of Kentucky, but the Lady Tigers are now solidly on the outside looking in at a double-bye and top four seed in the SEC tournament that begins a week from Wednesday in Duluth, Ga.
What will LSU be seeded when it gets there? Will the Lady Tigers have tacked on one or two more losses to Tennessee on Thursday and at Alabama on Sunday or will they have righted the ship and again resemble the team that started February 17-4 and ranked No. 12 in the coaches’ poll?
There seems to be little way to tell. Clearly even coach Nikki Caldwell is among those grasping for answers and trying to push every button except the one marked “Panic.”
“We’re in the booth,” Caldwell said, referring to her coaching staff. “We’re up there and we’ve got the flight plan. Who’s the pilot on this team? You’re going to have some passengers, but everyone has to play a role. We’ve got to get back to that.”
Coming into Sunday’s game the Lady Tigers looked like they might have found a path back to the season’s earlier successes.
LSU fell behind 18 points in the first half Thursday at Georgia but rallied within two a couple of times in the second half before falling 71-67, a loss that had its uplifting elements.
The Lady Tigers seemed to play off those plusses against Arkansas, grinding past the SEC’s top-ranked defense to a 27-17 halftime lead.
A jumper and a 3-pointer by Kenney in the first two minutes of the second half staked LSU to a 15-point lead, 32-17, before Arkansas (18-9, 5-9 SEC) stormed back on the back of freshman forward Jessica Jackson.
Jackson, who finished with a game-high 25 points, six of the Arkansas’ nine points in a 9-0 run that cut LSU’s lead to 32-26 at an official time out with 15:30 left.
At that point, Caldwell pulled her five starters (DaShawn Harden started for Raigyne Moncrief who sat out with a knee injury) and put in her five subs.
And in they stayed until 8:13 remained, 7 minutes and 17 seconds by the clock.
“It was for a long spell, through two or three time outs,” Arkansas coach Tom Collen said. “I didn’t notice if they had starters back at the table. Coaching is a tough business sometimes, and I know they haven’t exactly been on a roll lately. I’m sure she’s at a point where she feels she had to make a point with those kids.”
During that stretch, Arkansas banged away with long-range artillery but only pulled within 39-36.
But after the starters returned, Jackson hit a 3-pointer after a Kenney turnover and gave her team its first lead with another trey at the 6:27 mark.
“I felt our bench played hard,” Caldwell said. “We talked about them sustaining, and they sustained.
“Should we have gone to our starters earlier? No, because the point difference when we went to the bench was only three points. Our bench did a nice job against their starters.”
Problem for all the Lady Tigers by this point was Arkansas had all the momentum. LSU regained a couple of brief leads but the Razorbacks went back up for good 49-48 with 3:03 left on a drive by guard Keira Peak.
“I’m really proud of the way our kids played,” Collen said. “They fought as hard as I’ve seen them fight in a tough environment and couldn’t be prouder of the win.”
Jackson said she thought LSU’s players though they had the game won before it began, a notion Plaisance (who led the Lady Tigers with 14 points and 10 rebounds) flatly denied.
“I 100 percent disagree with that,” Plaisance said. “We knew Arkansas was a team to be reckoned with, that their record doesn’t show how good a team they are.”
From the Lady Tigers’ perspective, that makes two of them.