Danielle Ballard darted from the top of the key to snatch an errant Derryal Youngblood floater and bank it off the glass to begin lifting the malaise hanging over LSU.
With four minutes left in the first half, the Tigers’ progress toward an 87-61 rout of New Orleans on Monday at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center could graciously be described as plodding.
Until Ballard reeled off six consecutive points, LSU (9-4) found itself locked in a 26-26 tilt against the Privateers (1-13), who at one point built an early four-point lead.
So it behooved Ballard to serve as the catalyst alongside forward Theresa Plaisance, who finished with a game-high 25 points, as LSU built a three-point lead and pulled away early in the second half of their nonconference finale.
“That’s just what I have to do,” said Ballard, a 5-9 freshman who finished with 20 points on 10 of 12 shooting and added seven rebounds.
The demure response was fitting, considering LSU coach Nikki Caldwell required a stat sheet in her hands as a testament to Ballard’s handiwork.
“Ballard’s one of those players that has a quiet 20,” Caldwell said. “She’s so crafty in the way she scores.”
Sure enough, Ballard’s final six points of the first half came off crashing the offensive glass: An off-target jumper by Kuaneshia Baker, the miss by Youngblood and a garbage basket after errant hook shot by Plaisance with 2:55 until the break for a 32-26 lead.
“That’s what a team is supposed to do — feed off their point guard,” UNO coach Keeshawn Carter said. “But you don’t expect them to be crashing the boards.”
And none of the 2,608 sprinkled in the seats expected to see the Privateers pester and linger with the Tigers.
But UNO guard Keri Thomas, who paced the Privateers with 21 points on 7 of 16 shooting, sank a 3-pointer at the top of the arc to start a 9-2 spurt over two minutes that put UNO in front 14-10 with 14:24 left in the first half.
It was emblematic of LSU’s early woes — struggling to rotate off traps in its 3-2 zone — that allowed Thomas and Mirjam Siphos uncontested looks at the rim.
“They were just doing a great job working for open shots in the corner and the top of the key,” Plaisance said.
Not that the struggles to defend the 3-point line are new for LSU, which allowed opponents to hit 31.3 percent of their attempts entering Monday and ranks next-to-last in the Southeastern Conference.
“Awareness,” Caldwell said. “Our lack of awareness of where their shooters were early on really hurt us.”
The Privateers, who shot 42.6 percent, knocked down a season-high six 3-pointers in the first half, including Mirjam Sipos’ 3-pointer with 1:54 left in the first half that drew UNO within 34-31.
Yet, those looks were scant after halftime, with LSU shifting into a match-up zone, abandoning pressure in the half-court and relying solely on pressing the length of the floor.
Speeding up UNO produced the desired effect — forcing quick shots early in sets as the Privateers shot just 30.3 percent after halftime, including just 3 of 14 from behind the 3-point line.
Ballard’s jumper from the top of the key on the first possession of the second half was the first salvo in a decisive 14-1 run over four minutes to subdue New Orleans.
“We just gathered ourselves and looked in the mirror,” Plaisance said. “We had to ask, ‘Is this as hard as we can play?’”
On the next trip, Plaisance drove the left side of the line for a lay-up and foul by forward Yasmin Taylor, and then snared her missed free throw for a putback and a 44-35 lead with 19:03 to go.
“Theresa doesn’t need a whole lot to feed off of,” Carter said
Guard Adrienne Webb, who saw limited time in 17 minutes, knocked down a jumper, followed by a runner from Bianca Lutley with 16:57 left to extend the lead to 58-36.
And Ballard capped the burst with back-to-back buckets, converting on a fast break and a 52-36 lead at 16:03 after LSU forward Anne Pedersen came up with a loose ball.
The end game metrics of a 52-22 margin in the lane, a plus-20 rebounding advantage and a 22 second-chance points indicated an LSU rout.
Granted, Caldwell could quibble with the energy exerted to putting the figures together.
“You want to see that (effort) for 40 minutes,” Caldwell said.