NORTH LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — For 30 minutes Saturday against top-seeded South Carolina, the LSU Lady Tigers’ dreams of a Southeastern Conference tournament upset took on living, breathing dimensions.
DaShawn Harden was knocking down 3-pointers, LSU’s 2-3 zone defense was packing the lane like a suitcase and the Gamecocks’ shots refused to fall. The Lady Tigers led by as many as 11 in the first half, were up 31-27 at halftime and just trailed by four with 10 minutes left.
That’s when reality bit LSU. Hard.
Kaplan native Tina Roy started finding her 3-point range and South Carolina’s post players began using their considerable height and size advantage to double up LSU’s ability to score in the paint.
“In the second half we were giving them the paint and the perimeter,” a somber LSU coach Nikki Caldwell said.
The result was a near repeat of the Lady Tigers’ first two meetings with the Gamecocks, a pair of 24-point regular-season mismatches. South Carolina led by 23 points late and cruised into its first SEC tournament final with a 74-54 victory.
The loss dropped LSU, the No. 4 seed, to 17-13 overall. The Lady Tigers now await what seems to be a likely NCAA tournament bid when the field of 64 is announced March 16.
Wearing the pink sneakers she wore last Sunday to score 28 points at home against Texas A&M, Harden drained a trio of 3-pointers in the first three minutes, staking LSU to a quick 9-3 lead.
South Carolina rallied for a 10-10 tie, but the Lady Tigers went on a 14-3 surge to take their biggest lead, 24-13 with 8:13 left in the first half, on a basket by Akilah Bethel.
LSU still led 31-23 with 1:23 left before halftime on a jumper by Raigyne Moncrief before South Carolina sliced the lead in half with a pair of fastbreak baskets in the final 44 seconds.
It proved to be an ominous sign for LSU.
South Carolina finally took the lead, 36-35 with 15:57 left, on a steal and fastbreak basket by Olivia Gaines. It was the first time in the tournament LSU trailed after going wire-to-wire Friday for a 71-65 victory over Texas A&M.
Moncrief, who finished with 20 points, tied the game 36-36 with a free throw at the 15:40 mark. Roy responded with a 3-pointer with 15:16 left as South Carolina, which shot 35.5 percent in the first half and 78.3 percent in the second, never trailed again.
“I’m from Louisiana, so I like playing against them,” said Roy, who tied her career scoring high. “That could be a reason.”
The Gamecocks, allowing just 52.7 points per game after a 58-36 win Friday over Arkansas, smothered LSU’s offense.
Moncrief and Harden, who managed just two second-half points to finish with 19, were a combined 15 of 30 from the field. The rest of the Lady Tigers were 5 of 22.
South Carolina’s ability to neutralize Danielle Ballard was the most telling of all.
LSU’s All-SEC guard had 13 straight double-figure scoring games before Saturday and had a string of four straight postseason games of 20 points or more.
But against the Gamecocks, Ballard managed just eight points on 2 of 10 shooting.
Alaina Coates led South Carolina with 16 points, part of a deep Gamecocks bench that outscored LSU’s reserves 46-5. Roy added 15 points in her backup role, all from 3-point range on 5 of 10 shooting.
“It’s difficult,” Caldwell said. “We can’t have missed rotations or assignments because they’ll make you pay.”
Despite the loss, Moncrief said the Lady Tigers — whose RPI leaped from No. 70 to No. 58 after Friday’s win — were confident headed toward Selection Monday.
“We’re preparing for whatever,” she said. “We’ll await the results and see what happens.”