LSU builds momentum

Momentum, gradually built and dearly bought, is what the LSU Lady Tigers take with them into Sunday’s game at Mississippi State.

From a loss to Texas A&M that was their most lopsided of the season to a painful last-second meltdown against Tennessee to an impressive upset of then No. 9 Georgia, LSU (14-10, 5-6 Southeastern Conference) has clawed back into contention for the right to play at home in the first round of the NCAA tournament next month.

In his most recent projection, ESPN women’s basketball analyst Charlie Crème has the Lady Tigers as a No. 12 seed and one of the last four teams in the 64-team field.

It is a tenuous grasp on their goal, one that could slip away again if LSU can’t go to Starkville on Sunday and come back with a victory.

“Every game from here on out is critical,” LSU coach Nikki Caldwell said. “We’ve had some success, better success at home. Now we’ve got to be tested again on the road.”

Tipoff is set for 12:30 p.m. at Humphrey Coliseum in Starkville, Miss.

The game will be shown on FSN and heard locally on WBRP-FM, 107.3.

Mississippi State (11-13, 3-8) is coming off a 65-51 loss Thursday at SEC bottom-feeder Ole Miss and was handled 62-42 at LSU on Jan. 13. But like LSU, the Lady Bulldogs have shown signs of improvement of late.

State went to Missouri a game after Mizzou shocked Tennessee there 80-63 and came away with a 61-56 upset. LSU travels to Missouri (15-10, 4-7) on Thursday.

“Our team was instructed to watch our game (with State) and watch them now,” Caldwell said. “Watch how they went to Missouri and played Missouri after they just beat Tennessee. Mississippi State is a very capable team.

“We haven’t arrived. Maybe in the past, like that 2004-08 (Final Four) run or when I was coaching (at Tennessee), there were certain games you knew we’re going to win, even if we didn’t bring our best game. You can’t say that now. There are certain teams that are on top of our conference that can’t say they can go into people’s gymnasiums and blow them away. It’s just not happening anymore.”

LSU had a midweek bye after knocking off Georgia last Sunday, a breather that helped a thin Lady Tigers team rest and heal.

Chief among the recovering wounded is point guard Jeanne Kenney, who sprained a knee Feb. 4 against A&M.

Kenney said she and her teammates are determined to play their way into the NCAA tournament and be among the four teams who will be in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center on March 24.

“We know what we need to do,” Kenney said. “Our team has made a conscious effort not to let our seniors go out on a bad note and watch someone else in our gym.

“But we have to focus on Mississippi State, because the minute you take someone lightly, you’re right back to where you were before. We definitely can’t go back there.”

The game features a must-see matchup inside between 6-foot-5 LSU forward Theresa Plaisance and 6-4 State center Martha Alwal.

Plaisance leads the SEC in scoring (17.8 points per game) and blocked shots (2.8) and is eighth in rebounds (8.0).

Alwal leads the SEC with 13 double-doubles, is first in rebounding (10.0), second in blocks (2.4) and averages 12.5 points.

“Mississippi State has a player in Martha who can disrupt our post game,” Caldwell said. “We’ve got to be creative and not allow Theresa to get frustrated and putting her in the best position to score, because Martha’s a good defender. Their guard play is strong. So we’ve got our work cut out for us.”

Note

LSU will again play with nine as Coco Baker, a freshman guard from Helen Cox, will miss the trip after being suspended for the third straight game. Caldwell said Baker, who has played in just 13 of LSU’s 24 games, likely won’t make the Missouri trip either, Caldwell said.

… LSU has dominated its 50 previous meetings with State, holding a 44-6 lead in the series, including a 17-5 mark in Starkville. … Dave Baker and Daymeon Fishback will handle the TV call on FSN. The game is also available on ESPN3.com. … LSU’s final two home games will be at 2 p.m. next Sunday against Kentucky and Feb. 28 against Alabama.