A well-timed late-season surge has pushed the LSU Lady Tigers back into the consciousness of women’s college basketball.
Sunday’s emphatic 67-52 comeback upset win at then-No. 13 Texas A&M capped LSU’s regular-season-ending winning streak at six, a streak that included three wins over top-13-ranked teams.
As a result, the Lady Tigers (19-10) are ranked themselves, checking in at No. 22 in The Associated Press poll. It’s their first time to be ranked since Nov. 21, 2011, and the first time they have ended the regular season ranked since 2010.
“Finally,” junior guard Jeanne Kenney said with a relieved smile after practice Monday afternoon. “I just found out.”
LSU’s RPI isn’t quite as high, No. 34, but it’s a huge leap from No. 56 where the Lady Tigers were two weeks ago before they upset then-No. 9 Georgia, then-No. 7 Kentucky and A&M.
“Right now we’re on fire,” Kenney said. “I think it has a lot to do with our effort, going in and knowing we’re a top team. But we’re also still the underdog, and I love being the underdog.”
LSU’s claim on being an underdog may be dwindling.
“They lost to Tennessee by two and that got their team’s attention,” ESPN analyst Carolyn Peck said Monday. “(They said), ‘You know what? We’re pretty good. If we pay attention to what coach says, we can make it happen.’
“Then they started winning. Now this team believes they can go to the Final Four. That’s right down the road in New Orleans.”
Though LSU’s late-season success has virtually assured the Lady Tigers of playing at home in the first round of the NCAA tournament — the Pete Maravich Assembly Center will host first- and second-round games March 24 and 26 — they first have to make a road trip to the Southeastern Conference tournament in Duluth, Ga.
LSU, the No. 6 seed, opens tournament play at 7:30 p.m. Thursday against No. 11 Auburn (16-13). The winner gets No. 3-seeded Georgia (24-5) at 7:30 p.m. Friday.
The Lady Tigers, who finished 10-6 in the SEC, go into the tournament as one of the teams being bandied about as a prime contender.
“You look at LSU as the No. 6 seed, and I could see them winning the tournament,” said Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell, whose No. 2-seeded Wildcats split their season series with the Lady Tigers.
“You get a streak going in February or March, if you win three in a row you’re doing something,” Texas A&M coach Gary Blair said. “Give them credit.”
LSU would have to win four games in four days with a depleted eight-woman roster to earn its third SEC tourney title and first since 2003.
But to quote the phrase that the Lady Tigers now shout in unison as they huddle at the end of practice, “Eight is enough.”
“I think we’re one of the best teams in the country,” said forward Theresa Plaisance, the SEC’s No. 2 scorer with 173.6 points per game. “It’s up to us whether we’re going to play like it or not.
“The best teams in the country don’t take days off, and we can’t do that either. We have to be ready for whatever (the state of) Georgia has in store for us. If they want to bring us the top seeds in the tournament so be it. We’re ready for it.”
The Lady Tigers will be taking Tuesday off from practice as they fly to Atlanta in advance of the tournament. They are scheduled to practice Wednesday afternoon at the tournament site, the Gwinnett Center, before the tournament begins with a 5 p.m. game between No. 12-seeded Mississippi State (13-16) and No. 13 Alabama (12-17).
The tournament continues through Sunday.
Ballard with honors
Sylvia Fowles, you now have company from a tough-rebounding 5-foot-9 guard named Danielle Ballard.
The LSU freshman earned her fifth SEC freshman of the week award Monday after a pair of back-to-back double-double games last week.
The Memphis, Tenn., native had 14 points and 10 rebounds Thursday in a 76-42 win over Alabama and 15 points with a game-high 11 rebounds Sunday at A&M.
She is the first LSU freshman to be named freshman of the week five times in one season since Fowles in 2004-05.
Ballard also had five steals against Alabama and three against A&M, giving here an SEC-leading 90 for the season, second nationally among all freshmen. She needs four steals to break the LSU school record of 93 set by Marie Ferdinand in 1999-2000.
For the season, Ballard averages 12.6 points, 6.7 rebounds and 3.1 steals per game. Despite her size, Ballard ranks a surprising 12th in the SEC in rebounding.
“She plays the game like a linebacker,” Blair said. “I don’t have anybody who can guard her in a one-on-one situation.”
“She really goes in there, doesn’t matter how tall you are, and finds a way,” LSU coach Nikki Caldwell said. “When you have a point guard who rebounds like she does, that sends a statement. Plus it allows our transition game to be faster, because the ball is in her hands.”
Ballard was also named co-Louisiana women’s player of the week Monday by the Louisiana Sports Writers Association, sharing that honor with Louisiana-Monroe forward Ashleigh Simmons.