SPOKANE, Wash. — For a half, LSU was the little team that could, the battered band of Lady Tigers who went further in the 2013 NCAA women’s basketball tournament than they could have dared to dream in early February when they didn’t even have a bubble to burst.
At halftime, LSU stood sneaker to sneaker with No. 2-seeded Cal, the game tied at just 26 points apiece and being played on the Lady Tigers’ terms: S-L-O-W-L-Y.
But in the end, Cal was Cal — fast-breaking, cranking up the tempo and ultimately running LSU out of the Sweet 16 with a 73-63 defeat at Spokane Arena.
The sum of LSU coach Nikki Caldwell’s fears about the Golden Bears came true in the game’s final 20 minutes. And as quick as you could say “transition basket,” the Lady Tigers’ season was over.
“We really tried to establish an inside attack and put the ball inside quite a bit,” Caldwell said. “I thought (Cal guard Brittany) Boyd really took it upon herself to push the tempo, which really got their transition game going. And that gave them some easier looks.”
The last look anyone will have of LSU this season is of a team leaving the court in solemn dejection, just like every team but one will leave this tournament.
But in the end it was a season of success and redemption for the Lady Tigers, who finished 22-12 after a 9-2 run over the past two months that found LSU making its first Sweet 16 trip since 2008.
“Eight is enough” was the battle cry that carried LSU and its eight-woman roster into the NCAA tournament, but the program’s ninth trip to a regional final was not to be.
The Lady Tigers shot just 38 percent in the second half, while Cal shot 50 percent as it started running off LSU’s missed shots. The Bears had just six fast-break points at halftime — when the score was tied at 26-26 — but finished with 16 to LSU’s 2.
“That LSU team is really tough,” Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb said. “To do what they did with eight players, (that’s a) credit to them.”
Cal (31-3) advances to the Elite Eight for the first time. It will play Georgia in Monday night’s regional final for the right to go move on to the Women’s Final Four, which begins next Sunday in the New Orleans Arena.
“A little speechless,” Cal guard Layshia Clarendon said. “We’re one game away from New Orleans. Wow. This is awesome.”
The Lady Bulldogs (28-6) shocked top-seeded Stanford 61-59 in Saturday’s first semifinal. Cal and Stanford (33-3) tied for the Pac-12 regular-season championship.
Going into the game, signs were trending in a positive direction for LSU.
The Lady Tigers got a late lift Saturday afternoon when junior point guard Jeanne Kenney was cleared to play.
Kenney collided with teammate Adrienne Webb in the final minute of LSU’s first-round 75-71 win over Green Bay last Sunday, suffering a concussion that required her to be carried off the court. Kenney then sat out LSU’s 71-66 second-round upset of No. 3 seed Penn State on Tuesday, a game that LSU won with just seven players.
Kenney came off the bench to play 26 minutes against Cal, scoring six points and dishing out four assists before fouling out with 36 seconds left. She wore protective headgear in the first half but discarded it in the second as it kept slipping out of place.
“Jeanne is one of those players whose stat line doesn’t show a lot of points,” Caldwell said. “She doesn’t get a whole lot of rebounds. But her ability to lead is always there (as is) her competitive spirit.”
Caldwell inserted Kenney for the first time at the 12:53 mark. She quickly fed Theresa Plaisance for a pair of baskets down low as LSU clawed back from an early 11-6 deficit to tie the game at 14-14 with 9:21 left on a free throw-line jumper by Webb.
The Lady Tigers took their first lead at the 7:13 mark when Danielle Ballard, LSU’s single-season record holder for steals, made her 100th swipe near midcourt and drove to the basket for an 18-16 edge.
The lead exchanged hands until the halftime horn. Shanece McKinney, who blocked five first-half shots, was whistled for a foul on Gennifer Brandon as the clock went to zero. Officials put 0.4 seconds back on the clock after reviewing the video, and Brandon made both free throws to send both teams to their locker rooms deadlocked.
LSU turnovers to start the second half allowed Cal to mount a quick 8-2 surge, giving the Golden Bears their biggest lead at 34-28 with 16:35 to go on a basket by Afure Jemerigbe.
Caldwell called a hasty timeout, and LSU fought back to reclaim the lead at 36-35 on a pair of free throws by Plaisance with 13:54 to go.
But Cal regained the lead for good at 39-38 with 12:32 left on a pair of free throws by Brandon. The Bears extended their margin to 48-41 on two more free throws by Talia Caldwell moments later.
“When they came out in the second half, they really started trapping us on our ball screens,” Webb said, “so we weren’t rotating right or we weren’t making the extra pass to find an open teammate.”
The game’s decisive sequence came with just under six minutes left.
McKinney missed an easy layup, and Boyd came down and drained a 3-pointer for a 58-46 lead as the shot clock hit zero with 5:27 left.
Cal then scored two more transition baskets in rapid-fire succession, taking a 62-46 lead with 4:08 left on a putback by Brandon and virtually sealing LSU’s fate.
The Bears, a mediocre free-throw shooting team coming in at 61.6 percent, made 19 of their first 25 to keep the Lady Tigers at bay. Cal missed nine of its final 16, allowing LSU to close what was once a 17-point deficit to 10 as time expired.
Plaisance led LSU with 15 points and 12 rebounds; Webb also had 15 points in her final game as a Lady Tiger. Ballard added 14.
Clarendon, Cal’s All-American point guard, had 19 points after being held to two in the first half on 1-of-6 shooting. Brandon added 17 points and a game-high 13 rebounds.