Rust could have been expected of the already depleted LSU women’s basketball team that took the floor Sunday afternoon. LSU dressed just eight healthy players for its first game in 12 days — the injury list growing longer and the bench shorter each day.
Depleted and with final exams finally behind them, the Lady Tigers missed six of their first eight shots and turned the ball over three times in the first five minutes.
Then something changed.
“Akilah Bethel,” LSU’s Jenna Deemer deadpanned when asked what it was.
Buoyed offensively by Bethel’s career game, LSU pressured and trapped its way to a 68-50 win in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center, holding UC-Santa Barbara to a 34 percent shooting clip while holding the rebounding advantage 43-29.
Bethel scored 12 of her career-high 18 points in the first half when she was forced to operate in the middle after Alexis Hyder fell into foul trouble early in the second quarter.
“We were mad we were off that much,” Bethel said. “They (teammates) pumped me up. Coach designed plays for me to be at my best, to drive on people that can’t guard me or pull up. Just the confidence of my team saying ‘Hey, go for it’ really helped me.”
After an 8-0 Gauchos run tied the game at 20 midway through the second quarter, Bethel scored the next six points for a lead LSU didn’t relinquish.
“We ran some play action to her where she was not just on the block,” LSU coach Nikki Fargas said. “We allowed her to play away from the rim and use her athleticism to get to the rim. She’s a player we’ve allowed to play multiple positions, so you can’t just guard her at the five. And that, to me, commands different type of defenders.”
Deemer added 16 points and three second half 3-pointers, the first of which opened the half and gave the Lady Tigers their first double-digit lead of the game. From there, it was an 11-3 run, with another Deemer 3-pointer mixed in, that stretched the LSU lead to 19. It got as big as 22 before the final buzzer, aided by Jasmine Rhodes, who took her turn personifying the Lady Tigers’ “next woman up” mentality as they continue to cope with injuries.
Rhodes had six second-half points to give her 10 for the game. The Lady Tigers got Anne Pedersen back from a two-game concussion absence but didn’t dress Alliyah Fareo, who has a short-term left knee injury.
The injury problem forced Fargas to hold open walk-on tryouts for the first time in her coaching career. She said after Sunday’s game that five walk-ons would join the team “at least by” Jan. 1.
“It’s been interesting to have so much adversity so early in the season,” Fargas said. “The ones who are able to go, you’re being very sensitive to the fact that they’re playing a lot of minutes. (The walk-ons) will at least give us close to a full roster. All five won’t play, but to have the ability to run five-on-five in practice is going to be key, especially over these three or four weeks.”