Nikki Caldwell wants more than hunger from her LSU women

Tigers face tall challenge against West Virginia in NCAA tournament's second round

Welcome to The Hunger Game.

Actually, if LSU coach Nikki Caldwell has her way, her Lady Tigers’ matchup Tuesday night with West Virginia in their NCAA tournament second-round game will be more desperate than that.

“This time of year, it’s anybody’s game to take,” Caldwell said at Monday’s pregame news conference. “We have a veteran squad, four players who played valuable minutes from that (2013 Sweet 16) team, and they have a taste for it. They know what they can accomplish.

“Are we going to be starving for that again, or are we just going to be hungry? Because I think there’s a big difference. I hope we’re starving for it.”

So maybe the Lady Tigers shouldn’t expect an extravagant buffet for their pregame meal Tuesday.

Of course, if they win, they will get to sip champagne from Cinderella’s slipper — pretty near midnight, too — while packing for a trip to Louisville, Ky., and the Sweet 16.

Tipoff is set for 8:45 p.m. at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center between 20-12 LSU, the No. 7 seed in the Louisville Regional, and No. 2 seed Mountaineers (30-4). The game will be televised on ESPN2 and can be heard on WBRP-FM 107.3.

LSU came limping into the NCAA tournament having lost eight of its previous 10, but the Lady Tigers came out roaring in Sunday’s 98-78 first-round victory over Georgia Tech.

“We know we’ve been capable of playing this way all season, but we haven’t been able to put all the pieces together,” senior guard Jeanne Kenney said. “I think a lot of our pieces came together (Sunday).”

LSU set NCAA tournament single-game school records for points and points in a half (51 in the first) despite tying a school record for turnovers in a tourney game.

That’s an important mix of math considering West Virginia creates 8.2 steals and forces 17 turnovers a game.

The trick to succeeding despite turning the ball over is not minding, according to Lady Tigers guard DaShawn Harden.

“You just have to keep playing,” Harden said. “If you let turnovers faze you, then that’s when they just keep coming.

“But I guess they kept coming anyway.”

Harden came off the bench for 17 points and will likely start in place of freshman Raigyne Moncrief, who was helped off in the second half with a knee injury against Georgia Tech and is a game-time decision Tuesday.

Danielle Ballard, a 5-foot-9 guard, was the star for LSU against Tech, pouring in 24 points and grabbing a career-high 17 of LSU’s season-high 57 rebounds. Two-time All-Southeastern Conference forward Theresa Plaisance had 21 points and 11 rebounds, her ninth double-double this season and fourth in the past six games.

Plaisance, a New Orleans native who prepped at Vandebilt Catholic in Houma, will play her final game at LSU regardless of the outcome. Same for fellow seniors Kenney, a St. Michael the Archangel graduate, and Shanece McKinney.

“There really is no tomorrow unless you give it your all today,” said Plaisance, who leads the Lady Tigers with 15.8 points and 7.8 rebounds per game.

“LSU means the world to me, and this is a place that I wish I could stay forever. It’s pulling at my heart that one day I’m going to have to hang up my jersey, and I’m doing whatever I can to prolong that.”

In West Virginia, LSU gets an opponent well versed in overcoming home-court advantage and old-school sentiment.

The Mountaineers shared the Big 12 regular-season championship and went 11-1 in road games, their only loss a 66-63 defeat Jan. 25 at Texas.

West Virginia’s only knock is history: The Mountaineers have never been able to string together back-to-back tournament wins in nine previous NCAA appearances.

The only time they reached the Sweet 16 was back in 1992 when it took only one win to get there.

“I do feel like we have a target on our back,” said 6-foot-4 senior center Aysa Bussie, who will lock up with the 6-5 Plaisance and 6-4 McKinney. “It’s been like that all season long. We don’t get the respect that we should get, and we just have to go out there and prove it every game.”

West Virginia survived what at times was a shaky second half Sunday before pulling away from No. 15-seeded Albany 76-61. Senior guard Christal Caldwell led the Mountaineers with 26 points.

“Our teams have done a great job to get to this point,” West Virginia coach Mike Carey said. “And we need to take the next step in the NCAA tournament.

“We have another opportunity. Now, hopefully we can take advantage of that.”