LSU counting on guards for bigger roles

Nikki Caldwell is putting on a brave front.

The LSU women’s basketball coach addresses the loss of freshman guard Raigyne Moncrief (knee) and senior guard Jeanne Kenney (concussion) in the Lady Tigers’ two NCAA tournament victories so far and speaks not of desperation or their combined 21.4 points per game that’s now erased from her team’s offensive potential.

Instead, she talks of the opportunities for her team’s remaining five guards to grow and give more than perhaps they or anyone else thought they could.

“We’re playing harder. We’re playing more together,” Caldwell said before her team departed for Louisville, Ky., for Sunday’s regional semifinal matchup against the Cardinals on their home court in the KFC Yum! Center.

“When your roster starts to dwindle, players have stepped up. That was evident in our last game (against West Virginia) when you look at the play of Jasmine Rhodes, coming in and being that spark, that instant, positive player. The play of Rina Hill was tremendous for us.

“Their numbers were called, and they answered it.”

Not that they or Caldwell have much choice.

The injuries to Kenney and Moncrief, plus a pre-NCAA tournament suspension of sophomore center Derreyal Youngblood have left the Lady Tigers (21-12) with just eight available players. It’s the same number they had going into last year’s Spokane Regional semifinal against eventual Final Four participant California.

There are no free agents Caldwell can sign for a last-minute boost, no former Lady Tigers she can turn to for one final 40 minutes. March is time for the Big Dance, but you can only dance with the ones who brought you this far.

Here’s a look at the five LSU guards who will try to help the No. 7-seeded Lady Tigers spring another colossal upset on No. 3 Louisville (32-4) at 1:30 p.m. Sunday on ESPN2:

D anielle Ballard , 5-foot-9, Soph.: After an up-and-down regular season, there’s little doubt Ballard saved her best for LSU’s two biggest wins of the year.

Displaying her rare creativity around the basket and an uncommon rebounding ability for a player of her size, Ballard had 24 points and 17 rebounds in LSU’s 98-78 first-round victory over Georgia Tech and 22 points and 15 rebounds against West Virginia.

In NCAA play, Ballard is ninth in scoring nationally and third in rebounding with 23.0 points and 16.0 rebounds per game.

Only Kirby Burkholder of James Madison (24.0, 14.0) also ranks in the top 10 in both categories in the tournament.

LSU will likely continue to try to run much of its offense through Ballard, but there’s also little doubt she will be a focal point of a Louisville defense allowing an NCAA tournament-low 47.5 points per game.

DaShawn Harden , 5-9, Jr.: A junior college transfer from Kansas, Harden has become a late-season fixture in the LSU lineup since Moncrief was hobbled by her first knee injury in February.

Harden has started seven of LSU’s past eight games and upped her season scoring average to 7.2 points per game. With Kenney out, Harden is LSU’s biggest 3-point threat though she averages just one made 3 per game (32 of 104).

In one of the few bright spots for LSU’s current personnel crisis, Harden has developed into a solid alternative for teams to contend with when Ballard drives inside for buckets and boards.

“Danielle and I have a really good relationship off the court,” Harden said. “I think that helps with her trusting me and knowing that if the defense collapses on her she can kick it to me and I’ll hit the shot.”

Rina Hill , 5-7, Fr.: Believed to be LSU’s first basketball player from Japan, Hill is primarily a ball handler but did step in to hit a pair of crucial jump shots against West Virginia and helped keep the Mountaineers at bay by hitting all four of her free-throw attempts in the closing minutes.

Hill, who averages 3.3 points per game, is penciled in to make her ninth start of the season in Kenney’s absence.

Jasmine Rhodes , 5-10, Fr.: Rhodes was almost forgotten on the LSU bench after showing some early-season promise before delivering 20 big minutes against West Virginia.

Rhodes had 11 points on 5 of 7 shooting against the Mountaineers after totaling just 11 minutes of court time in LSU’s previous five games combined. Now she’ll look to be Caldwell’s spark off the bench again against Louisville.

“Whenever they call my name, I’m ready,” Rhodes said. “Whatever role my role needs to be, I’m just going to do it.”

Anne Pedersen , 6-1, Soph.: A native of Copenhagen, Denmark, Pedersen averages just 2.4 points per game but quietly has been one of the Lady Tigers’ most improved players this season. She’s yet to score in 14 combined minutes of NCAA tournament court time, but could be called on to play a bigger role Sunday.