Down and struggling, a season on the line and not much going right.
That’s where the LSU women found themselves as the clock turned past the halfway point of the second half Sunday night in an NCAA Regional first-round game against San Diego State at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.
So the Lady Tigers did what came naturally – really what has been natural all season long in a transitional year under first-year coach Nikki Caldwell.
They dug deep, got nasty on defense and made sure LaSondra Barrett got the ball as much as possible.
That was again a recipe that worked wonders as fifth-seeded LSU stormed back from a six-point deficit and pulled away from the No. 12-seed Lady Aztecs for a 64-56 victory.
With the win, the Lady Tigers (23-10) punched a ticket to Round 2 where they will face Penn State (25-6), which staged a similar second-half performance to down UTEP 85-77 in Sunday’s first regional contest.
|Courtney Jones contributed 13 points, 8 rebounds in the Lady Tigers' 64-56 win.|
Barrett finished with 17 points and 10 rebounds and scored all 12 of her second-half points from the free-throw line – nine in the final 4:09. Courtney Jones added 13 points and 8 rebounds and Jeanne Kenney added 10 points, 4 assists and a pair of clutch 3-pointers.
“When you play this time of year, you need players to make big-time plays for you,” Caldwell said after guiding LSU to the first NCAA win of her tenure and its 14th straight first-round win dating back to 1991. “When we were down by seven, I really felt we got some great energy off our bench, but more importantly the three young ladies to the left of me (Barrett, Jones and Kenney) made some big-time plays for us. I can't say enough of how proud I am of this group for staying true to the game plan and coming out with a victory."
As has been the case much of the season, the sum was greater than the parts, as seven Lady Tigers scored at least 4 points and eight corralled at least 3 rebounds to help LSU claim a 43-32 advantage on the backboards.
San Diego State (25-7) staggered the Lady Tigers early in the second half with a 9-2 run, with Kiyana Stamps pumping in a 3-pointer, Chelsea Hopkins driving the baseline for a shot and Kristina Hunter coming off the bench to score inside. That surge turned a 27-27 halftime tie into a 36-29 Lady Aztec lead with 17:10 left to play.
LSU hung around, but couldn’t find a rhythm and still trailed 47-41 when Hopkins drove the lane after a steal at the 10:04 juncture.
The comeback began shortly after that and it was fittingly a group effort.
Following a media timeout, Kenney swished a pair of free throws and that triggered a methodical 12-0 run over the ensuing 5:36.
The Lady Tigers’ defense took over, forcing six straight missed floor shots and even when SDSU got to the free-throw line, it missed four in a row during the drought.
“When they made their run, we made sure that we didn’t give up,” Jones said. “We refocused and we listened to our coaches about relying on our defense and getting the ball in the paint and making layups.”
While LSU refocused, the Lady Aztecs squandered one chance after another to hold the Lady Tigers at bay. San Diego State never got comfortable at the stripe, going 7-of-20 with eight misses in a row in the second half.
“The irony us is that we’re first in our league and are a very good free-throw shooting team,” Lady Aztecs coach Beth Burns said. “We come in at about 74% and that’s a little frustrating on a night like (Sunday).”
LSU went the opposite direction and gradually put the game away from the line. The lady Tigers were 26-of-35 overall, 22-of-28 after halftime and 17-of-20 after pulling even with 7:22 to play.
|Bianca Lutley scored back-to-back second-half hoops to give the Lady Tigers a lead they never gave up.|
Barrett hit two foul shots to knot the score, and Bianca Lutley fueled the comeback when she ended a three-shot LSU possession with a stickback and then took a feed and scored in the paint to give her team a 51-47 lead.
"Our game plan initially was to pound the ball inside,” Caldwell said. “We got some great looks, we just missed a lot of layups and a lot of paint points. San Diego State did a great job of really disrupting the basketball, so we went to some pressure release to try to give Jeanne and Bianca some looks there. We also moved Boogie to the point, and I thought that helped change up the look a little bit as well."
As different as the look might’ve been for a while, the final 4:09 was very familiar to LSU fans.
With the game and the season on the line, Barrett took the game in her hands and refused to let the Lady Tigers lose.
Not only did she step to the line and perform with ice in her veins, Barrett also spearheaded a late-game defensive effort that kept SDSU from staging a comeback.
The Lady Aztecs went 6:48 between made floor shots after grabbing the 47-41 lead and Courtney Clements struggled in particular. After bombing away for 14 points in the first half on 6-of-11 shooting, Clements missed the first five shots she took after halftime.
“They did a good job of being physical in the second half,” Clements said. “They didn’t let me get any easy looks at all and they knew where I was at all times on the floor.”
Clements gave one last gasp when she jacked in her only made shot of the second half – a 3-pointer from the left wing that trimmed the difference to 58-54 with 1:04 on the clock.
No sweat for the Lady Tigers, though, as Barrett and Jones combined for six straight free throws and the defense created a pair of San Diego State turnovers.
And that finished off a gritty win that fit the mold of so many LSU delivered down the stretch to turn the season around after injuries threatened to derail the Lady Tigers with a five-game SEC losing streak to end January and start February.
“We just stuck at it,” Barrett said. “We've had ugly wins throughout this whole season. “We knew if we kept fighting, kept playing, it would be a dogfight and if we kept the game in low-scoring numbers, we would get the advantage.”
Of course, hitching their hopes to Barrett’s wagon was a nice benefit for the Lady Tigers as well. She notched her fifth double-double and hit nine or more free throws for the fifth time in a span when LSU has won nine of 11 games.
Starting with a 61-51 victory at home over eventual SEC regular-season champion on Feb. 5, Barrett has shot 75.7% from the foul stripe (84-of-111), the majority of those in the second half and in crunch time.
“LaSondra has been our rock,” Caldwell said. “She's someone who, late in the game, you have to have her in the game. She brings a strength and toughness to this team when she's on the floor. “
Making it count
Penn State defeats UTEP