LSU women advance past Alabama in SEC tournament

Ala. native McKinney helps Lady Tigers beat Crimson Tide 78-65

After a nightmarish month of basketball, Shanece McKinney was still able to envision a sweet dream for herself and the LSU Lady Tigers.

“I’m not going into a lot of detail,” McKinney said somewhat sheepishly, “but I saw us cheering with our fans after the game.”

McKinney, as much as anyone the Lady Tigers put on the court, helped turn that dream into reality in Thursday’s second round Southeastern Conference tournament matchup against Alabama.

The senior from Mobile, Ala., scored 18 points on 8 of 9 shooting, pulled down a career-high 10 rebounds, blocked four shots. When it was over, McKinney and the No. 10-seeded Lady Tigers were indeed waving to their fans as they left the Gwinnett Center court holding a 78-65 win over the No. 7 Crimson Tide.

The win — LSU’s first in exactly one month — snapped a six-game losing streak and helped this Lady Tigers’ team avoid becoming the first in program history to lose seven straight games. Now 19-11, LSU advances to Friday’s quarterfinals for yet another matchup with old rival Tennessee (24-5), the No. 2 seed, at 5 p.m. CST.

The game will be shown on Fox Sports Net, WatchESPN.com and can be heard on WBRP-FM 107.3 in Baton Rouge and at LSUSports.net.

It was Alabama that scored 78 points Sunday in a 78-60 win over LSU in their regular-season finale, a frustrating extension of the losing streak that threatened the Lady Tigers’ once rock solid NCAA tournament hopes.

In the rematch, LSU responded with hot shooting (50.8 percent from the field) strong defense (Bama shot 35.4 percent), eight blocks and a determination rooted in the desperate effort to win a game.

Any game.

“We did what we were supposed to,” said sophomore guard Danielle Ballard, who also scored 18 points. “Now we’re moving on to the next game.”

“I’m very proud of our team for staying disciplined in our game plan and playing this game with a lot of heart,” LSU coach Nikki Caldwell said.

Heart that started inside with McKinney and fellow post player Theresa Plaisance, who left the game with a black eye but her 16th career double-double (12 points, 12 rebounds). Caldwell said her staff came up with a new offensive set called “Power” to take advantage of their respective 6-foot-4 and 6-5 height that Bama couldn’t match.

“McKinney did an exceptional job of being accurate,” Caldwell said. “Everything she put up was pretty much going in. She’s our cleanup lady. Her presence on the defensive end set a tone.”

Offensively, so did Ballard, who got an earful in a phone call from her brother about her up-and-down play this season.

“He went off on me,” Ballard said. “He said, ‘As you go the team goes,’ and that I needed to step it up.”

Ballard reprised some of her past brilliance, slashing to the basket for 18 points and grabbing seven rebounds. Jeanne Kenney added 16 points.

Alabama’s Shafontaye Myers was hot throughout, scoring her team’s first 14 points and finishing with a game-high 27. But LSU was able to push away from the Crimson Tide by halftime to take a 34-27 lead and went up by as many as 25, 64-39, with 6:42 left on a putback basket by Plaisance.

Myers, who made six 3-pointers, and Daisha Simmons (18 points) got Bama back within 10 at 71-61 with 1:32 left but no closer as LSU won its SEC tournament opener for the 13th time in the last 14 years.

“I just credit LSU,” said Bama coach Kristy Curry, the Olla, La., native who played at Louisiana-Monroe and was once an assistant at Louisiana Tech. “I thought Shanece and Theresa and Jeanne, just as seniors, really willed their team (to win) — did a great job.

“It was kind of a role reversal from Sunday. They had great balance. We had trouble scoring and making plays.”

LSU in particular neutralized freshman forward Ashley Williams. She had 14 points and 10 rebounds Sunday but just five points to again go with 10 rebounds this time.

Alabama set LSU opponent records for free throws made (34) and attempted (50). The Tide again outshot the Lady Tigers at the line, but made only 10 of 18 attempts while LSU was 11 of 12.

LSU and Tennessee split their regular-season meetings, trading hammer blows.

The Lady Tigers opened SEC play Jan. 2 by holding on for an 80-77 win after leading by 16 points with less than five minutes left.

The Lady Volunteers won 72-67 in Baton Rouge on Feb. 27 after LSU rallied from a 21-point halftime deficit to tie it 59-59 with 3½ minutes left.

“I told our group to enjoy the moment but (Friday) we get to play again for 40 minutes,” said Caldwell, a former Tennessee player and assistant coach.

“I don’t want this group hoping or wishing. I want them to go into the game and make it happen.”

By beating Bama, LSU probably has erased any doubt regarding its NCAA tournament hopes. Despite their losing streak, the Lady Tigers came into the SEC tournament with a No. 12 RPI bolstered by the nation’s No. 1 strength of schedule.

LSU hosts NCAA first- and second-round games March 23 and 25 and would get to play at home if invited.