Rabalais: Late-season run showed LSU's potential

SPOKANE, Wash. — The end for the LSU Lady Tigers came as it does for 63 of the 64 teams that start the NCAA women’s basketball tournament, with a thunderclap of stark reality that the season — and for some a career — is over.

With this team and this program, though, there isn’t quite the same sense of finality. Perhaps it is the backdrop of the Easter season, a time of renewal, but the aftermath of LSU’s improbable drive to the Sweet 16 made it seem more like a beginning than an end.

Yes, the Lady Tigers will have to replace two key seniors on next year’s team. Adrienne Webb truly saved her best basketball for the time the Lady Tigers needed it most: the 9-1 stretch that led LSU to its first Sweet 16 appearance since 2008. Bianca Lutley had her key moments, too, like the go-ahead basket she muscled in during the final minute against Penn State.

But if we are dealing in stark realities here, this 2012-13 team will probably prove to be Nikki Caldwell’s least talented from a numbers and personnel standpoint. That she was able to get a team with as few as six or seven healthy players at times this far is a remarkable testament to the promise this program holds.

“I know for a fact next year people are going to be worried about LSU,” Lutley said. “Next year, and the years after that.”

First, though, LSU needs to stop worrying about the body count. There was a genuine risk in the Penn State game that, with a handful of ill-timed fouls, the Lady Tigers could have finished with four on the floor.

Seven players return, led by All-Southeastern Conference forward Theresa Plaisance, freshman All-SEC guard Danielle Ballard and all-everything guard Jeanne Kenney. Center Shanece McKinney, who blossomed as a defensive force, will be a senior along with Plaisance and Kenney.

Caldwell is optimistic that forward Sheila Boykin will be able to return from Guillain-BarrĂ© syndrome, which sidelined her for LSU’s final nine games. There is little optimism that guard Coco Baker will be allowed to return after a freshman season marred by off-the-court transgressions.

Two big recruits are on the way from the November signing period: 5-foot-10, five-star guard Raigyne Moncrief and 5-10 wing player Jasmine Rhodes.

But the Lady Tigers will need more players than that, especially to employ more of the full-court defense that Caldwell wants to use. For that reason, her staff will be hitting the recruiting trail again to find more low post players and possibly even some perimeter help.

A lot of things have to go right for LSU: more quality recruits, Boykin’s return, having the oft-injured Kenney get through a season without exceeding the team’s entire medical deductible.

But if the pieces come together just right, the expectation will be for LSU to once again start making regular stops in the Sweet 16, Elite Eight and Final Four — not merely occasional visits.