Lady Tigers ‘starting to believe’ in Sweet 16

From NCAA tournament exile to a Sweet 16 showdown in the Great Northwest, all in a span of 10 games.

It’s an achievement that many teams would be proud to call theirs. But for the LSU Lady Tigers, with the Women’s Final Four being played just 80 miles from their home court, the urge to return home with two more wins and a regional title trumps any satisfaction they may have in what they have accomplished.

In short, they’ve worked too hard and are having too much fun to stop now.

“Everyone’s starting to believe now,” guard Jeanne Kenney said, “believe that we can go far, that we’re a good team. It makes you smile. We’re playing as a team.”

A team that finds itself two wins away from playing in New Orleans. It’s a path that another LSU team blazed this way — Louis and Clark-like — nine years ago.

Back in 2004, LSU won two NCAA tournament games at home, went to Seattle and won the regional, then returned home to New Orleans for the first of five straight Final Four appearances.

Like in 2004, when LSU had to take down top-seeded Texas in the semifinals, the opponent is a daunting one: No. 2 seed California (30-3), the Pac-12 co-champion with Stanford, the top seed here in the Spokane Regional. Tipoff is set for 10:32 p.m. CDT at Spokane Arena between No. 6 seed LSU (22-11) and Cal. The game will be televised on ESPN2 and heard locally on 107.3 FM.

The LSU-Cal winner advances to Monday’s Spokane Regional final against the survivor of Saturday’s first semifinal between Stanford and No. 4 seed Georgia.

Georgia, by the way, was the team LSU beat in the regional final in Seattle in 2004.

It is here where the narratives from 2004 and this season diverge.

That LSU team didn’t have to overcome a scary injury to one of its key players. Kenney sat out the Lady Tigers’ 71-66 upset of No. 3 seed Penn State on Tuesday after suffering a concussion Sunday when she collided with teammate Adrienne Webb in the final minute of LSU’s first-round win over Green Bay.

Kenney traveled with the team and has participated in both practices LSU has held since arriving in Spokane on Wednesday night.

Wearing protective headgear, Kenney took part in shooting drills and spun away on a stationary bike during Friday’s practice session. Though otherwise showing few if any ill effects from her concussion, both player and coach Nikki Caldwell said Kenney’s status against Cal will be a game-time decision.

The problem from Caldwell’s perspective is how to let Kenney play without letting her be her body-sacrificing best, taking charges and throwing herself across the floor.

“I’m not going to ask Jeanne not to be who she is,” Caldwell said. “That’s how she plays this game. She plays it with a high level of intensity, she’s a competitor and she will sacrifice her body.”

“I’ve learned how to fall,” Kenney said with a wry smile.

Webb, the other Easter egg who didn’t crack when they crashed into each other, certainly hasn’t been the worse for wear. During LSU’s season-saving 9-1 run — a surge in which the Lady Tigers have gone 5-1 against ranked teams — Webb has led LSU at 16.2 points per game.

No game was more prolific than her effort against Penn State. Webb poured in a career-high 29 points, the most for the Lady Tigers in an NCAA tournament game since Seimone Augustus had 29 in the 2004 regional final.

“It’s a crucial time in the season,” said Webb, who has made 39 percent of her 3-pointers and 87 percent of her free throws over the past 10 games. “Everybody wants to play in the NCAA tournament. For me, this is my last go-round, so I’ve wanted to play hard each and every game for my team.”

In California, LSU faces a team that is balanced in scoring like the Lady Tigers but rebounds at an exceptional clip. The Golden Bears are third in the nation with a plus-11.6 rebounding margin to LSU’s plus-1.2.

Cal’s Gennifer Brandon, a 6-foot-2 forward, averages 11.3 rebounds. She’s joined by 6-3 center Talia Caldwell at 7.3 per. Layshia Clarendon, a 5-9 senior guard and All-America candidate, averages 16.0 points.

“Caldwell is very physical on the low block,” Nikki Caldwell said. “And Layshia Clarendon, she can come into the SEC right now and still do work. She’s that good.”

In Cal, LSU faces not only a talented team but a group motivated to try to reach the Elite Eight for the first time.

“There’s nothing to fear anymore,” Clarendon said.

“It’s either win or go home. So there’s nothing holding us back.”