Rabalais: After disappointment, LSU turns focus to NCAA

Associated Press photo by Jason Getz -- LSU guard Raigyne Moncrief sits on the bench in the final moments of a 77-65 loss to Tennessee in the quarterfinals of the Southeastern Conference women's tournament Friday in Duluth, Ga.
Associated Press photo by Jason Getz -- LSU guard Raigyne Moncrief sits on the bench in the final moments of a 77-65 loss to Tennessee in the quarterfinals of the Southeastern Conference women's tournament Friday in Duluth, Ga.

DULUTH, Ga. — Before her team left the Gwinnett Center court for the final time, LSU coach Nikki Caldwell drew her players and staff together for one final, forward-looking huddle.

“Shanece McKinney had tears in her eyes, we wiped them away, and I told them to hold your heads up when you walk off this court,” Caldwell said after her team was bounced Friday night from the Southeastern Conference women’s tournament by Tennessee. “We’ve got more basketball in us.

“This is not over. We know what we have to do.”

Like every team but one, the Lady Tigers went home disappointed that they couldn’t capture the tournament title. It’s been 11 years since LSU last won the SEC tournament in 2003.

“We came here to win, obviously,” senior guard Jeanne Kenney said. “We couldn’t make that happen. Hopefully we’re in the (NCAA) tournament.”

Though nothing is guaranteed for an LSU team that dropped to 19-12 with the Tennessee loss, it’s a virtual certainty the Lady Tigers’ NCAA tournament hopes will become reality.

LSU’s NCAA tournament fate was likely secured Thursday night when the Lady Tigers toppled seventh-seed Alabama 78-65 to snap a potentially deadly six-game losing streak.

LSU has lost seven of its past nine since starting the season 17-4, but with a No. 12 RPI heading into the SEC tournament and the nation’s No. 1 strength of schedule — a number not likely to be dented by playing RPI No. 5 Tennessee for the third time — the Lady Tigers can look forward to Selection Monday on March 17 without too much anxiety.

Women’s basketball analyst and former Florida coach Carolyn Peck said the Lady Tigers should be able to rest easy.

“I think they’re fine,” she said. “I think the first game (against Alabama) and the first half against Tennessee demonstrated what they’re capable of. How competitive they were against a Tennessee team that has the possibility of even being a No. 1 seed has to get (the selection committee’s) attention.

“If the committee focuses on how they ended the season, they’re going to look at how they played their last two games. They’re back to being the team that started the season so hot.”

Calling LSU a hot team after one victory may be debatable, but Peck’s assertion that the NCAA selection committee got what it wanted to see here from the Lady Tigers is likely spot on.

With LSU hosting NCAA first- and second-round games for the third straight year, March 23 and 25 at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center, the selection committee will be looking for a reason to invite the Lady Tigers.

Unlike in the men’s tournament, where teams haven’t been allowed to play on their home court since 1986 (LSU did that year en route to the Final Four), if a team is in the NCAA tournament and hosting first- and second-round games, that team is guaranteed to play at home. And having the home team around certainly means selling a lot more tickets, an unstated but real consideration.

LSU probably won’t be a high seed. ESPN women’s bracketologist Charlie Crème had the Lady Tigers as a No. 10 seed entering the SEC tournament.

If that’s true, the NCAA would have to send a No. 2 seed to Baton Rouge. And that will be one highly seeded team that won’t be thrilled about the prospect of playing LSU on its home floor.

“That’s the game plan,” Kenney said, a wry smile indicating she’s relishing the chance to play spoiler.

And playing at home will give LSU at least a fighting chance to get back to the Sweet 16 for the second straight season.

“That would be pretty sweet. Pun intended,” Kenney said. “What a way to leave your senior season, winning in the PMAC.”

The Lady Tigers displayed a lot of the form in Duluth that could allow them to advance in NCAA play.

They shot the ball well for three-fourths of their SEC stay — 51 percent against Alabama and 46 percent in the first half against Tennessee (29 percent in the second) — and showed a tenacious side to their defense, breaking out of their preferred zone to spend a lot of time in man-to-man.

The defense, which when LSU played it well triggered the kind of transition offense that served the Lady Tigers best, still needs work, Kenney said.

“We’re probably going to practice just on defense the entire two weeks, as we should,” Kenney said. “Because that’s what wins and loses the game, basically. That’s what the game is determined by. I’m definitely expecting defensive practices.

“It’s (LSU’s defense) better. There was improvement. It’s not where it needs to be at this point in the season. The things happening here were happening in January, and December and in Spain (during an exhibition tour). It’s stuff we need to fix and fix quickly.”

It’s unlikely the Lady Tigers are going to significantly upgrade their faults and blemishes over the next two weeks.

But what they showed in the SEC tournament at least gives LSU hope going forward.

Not to be in the NCAA tournament, but to win there.