Rabalais: LSU will have to earn its way back to Sweet 16

The cover of the LSU women’s basketball media guide sums up the Lady Tigers’ season and their current situation quite nicely:

EARNED

NEVER

GIVEN

A competitive bid and a history of doing a competent job hosting NCAA tournament games gave the Lady Tigers the opportunity to hear the familiar bounce of ball against the hardwood in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.

What they do with what they’ve been given, what they earn from here, will be all on them.

It looked a bit dicey for LSU to even get in the NCAA tournament late in the season, but its home court and an RPI of 15 inflated by their No. 2 strength of schedule cleared a path. It even renewed hope that the Lady Tigers can put together enough grit and hustle to make a second straight trip to the Sweet 16.

But boy, will the Lady Tigers earn that trip to Louisville, Ky., later this week if they can win two here.

Losses in eight of their past 10 games pretty much doomed LSU’s chances of earning a lofty NCAA seed. There were predictions that the selection committee would make the Lady Tigers a No. 8 or 9 seed, compelling them to send a No. 1 seed not hosting first- and second-round games like Notre Dame (the Fighting Irish are aimed at a regional on their home court) to Baton Rouge.

Whether it was a procedural bump or genuinely something the Lady Tigers earned, LSU got a No. 7 seed in the Louisville regional and thus dodged one of the imposing No. 1s for now. It’s not the Subregional of Death, but it’s no weekend at the beach, either.

The NCAA sent No. 2 seed West Virginia, the Big 12 regular-season champion which was probably one thin loss from being a No. 1 seed, along with No. 15 Albany (a power-hungry team from the America East Conference) and Georgia Tech as a No. 10.

Tech, like LSU, finished in the middle of the pack in the ACC.

But the Yellow Jackets have the ability to sting the Lady Tigers in ways that may induce an allergic reaction with their taste for crashing the boards and pushing the offensive tempo to the tune of nearly 80 points per game. (LSU averages just under 70.)

So it comes down to pride for the Lady Tigers, pride in the accomplishment that was last year’s Sweet 16 run and pride stamped on the banners hanging from the catwalk at the PMAC. Achievements spelled out in five straight Final Four appearances and 22 NCAA tournament appearances.

Frankly, this year’s team looked like it would have the Lady Tigers farther along that path back to the Final Four than they’ve gotten to this point. LSU has size, guard play, depth (as compared to last year’s team that beat Penn State in the second round with seven healthy players) and experience.

There has been talk this team has lacked chemistry for whatever reason, though senior forward Theresa Plaisance claimed at Saturday’s news conference that the Lady Tigers weren’t “splintered” this season. Whether they were or not remains debatable, but there is certainly reason to think this team hasn’t achieved as much as it should have.

But all that can go away with a couple of wins in the PMAC on Sunday and Tuesday.

For that to happen, the Lady Tigers will have to be focused, determined and cohesive to a degree they have truly yet to display this season. Perhaps, senior guard Jeanne Kenney said, assistant coach Tony Perotti found the answer.

“You have two types of players: one that’s going to try hard and practice, and there’s the other one that says, ‘Over my dead body,’ ” Kenney said. “That’s the mentality we have right now. It’s all business now. I mean, it’s March Madness. Anything can happen, and we’ve seen that again and again. It’s literally win or go home.”

Or, in the Lady Tigers’ case, win or stay home. But Kenney’s point is well taken. And the Lady Tigers will have to go out and take two wins to advance off their home court; it certainly won’t be given to them.

“I think our identity is that it’s going to be a fight,” Kenney said. “Even if we’re down, we’re going to come back. We proved that again and again, and if we’re up, we have to maintain that lead.”

They’re going to have to earn it for 40 minutes, and 40 minutes again.

Does LSU have that kind of focus and determination?

We’re about to find out.