Lady Tigers turn to Danielle Ballard on trip to A&M

The story of Danielle Ballard’s freshman season at LSU could have been titled “How to Steal — and Look — like a Million.”

A Southeastern Conference All-Freshman Team and All-Defensive Team selection, Ballard set a single-season LSU school record with a cool 100 steals. She averaged 12.1 points and 6.5 rebounds, third and second on the team in those catgories.

Fast-forward to her sophomore season, one marked by sparkling brilliance and implausible lows.

The 5-foot-9 guard poured in a career high-tying 25 points in LSU’s best win, an 80-77 upset at then-No. 5 Tennessee on Jan. 2. She had 23 points in a loss at Vanderbilt.

But in six of LSU’s 10 SEC games, Ballard has scored five or fewer points. She was suspended for unspecified violations of team rules for four nonconference games, calling into question her dedication to the team.

In LSU’s 75-58 victory over Missouri on Thursday night, some of the old Ballard brilliance shone through. She scored eight points, albeit on 4-of-13 shooting, and waded in among the tall trees around the basket to snare six rebounds.

She was, in the words of teammate Jeanne Kenney, unselfish in her play.

“I forget she’s only a sophomore,” Kenney said after the Missouri game. “In a timeout, I told her, ‘If they’re not guarding you step in and take a shot.’ She said, ‘I don’t want to be a ball hog.’ Just by saying those words showed the unselfish player she’s become. It made me tingly.”

“Oh, God,” teammate Theresa Plaisance groaned nearby.

“Be quiet,” Kenney shot back while Ballard smiled appreciatively.

The Ballard that inspires tingles with her play needs to be on her game Sunday if No. 16 LSU (18-5, 7-3) is to come away with a victory at No. 19 Texas A&M (17-6, 7-2).

Tipoff is set for 1:30 p.m. at Reed Arena in College Station. The game will be televised on FSNO and can be heard in Baton Rouge on WBRP-FM, 107.3.

Ballard said she started on the road to being a more consistent offensive threat again by working hard in the gym, charting 400 made shots between games.

“The last two games, I was off,” Ballard said. “Coach (Nikki Caldwell) told me what I needed to do, so I decided to come in and practice early and get a couple of extra shots in.”

“She’s filled her competitive tank,” Caldwell said, sounding one of her favorite themes. “If she continues to do that, she will find success again.”

Plaisance (14.6 points per game), freshman guard Raigyne Moncrief (11.5 ppg) and Kenney (11.1 ppg) have all been factoring in as consistent scorers for the Lady Tigers.

But someone is bound to have an off night. For LSU to come up with another big road win to stay relevant in the competitive SEC — the Lady Tigers come into Sunday’s play in fourth, two games behind first-place South Carolina — they need Ballard to be better than she was in LSU’s first meeting with Texas A&M.

Coming off their upset at Tennessee, the Lady Tigers were unable to build on that momentum, dropping their home SEC opener with a defense-dominated 52-48 loss to A&M. Ballard scored just five points on 1-of-7 shooting.

“That game was within our reach, and we needed to be a 40-minute team,” Caldwell said. “I can’t express that enough to our group. A&M played some good basketball, and we didn’t play very well at home.

“We’ve got to bring an aggressive offense (into Sunday’s game). What has plagued us on road is an inability score in the paint, to make layups. We have to be on point there. It’s going to boil down to our intensity.”

LSU won at Texas A&M last season after losing 74-57 at home to the Aggies. Plaisance had 16 points in a 67-52 win, while Ballard had 15 points and 11 rebounds to become the first LSU freshman since Sylvia Fowles in 2004-05 to record back-to-back double doubles.

The Courtneys — 5-8 guard Courtney Walker and 6-1 forward Courtney Williams — lead A&M at 13.5 and 13.0 points, respectively.

Following Sunday’s game, the Lady Tigers are off until they host South Carolina on Feb. 16 at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.