OXFORD, Miss . — LSU suffered a painful 58-57 loss Thursday night at Ole Miss, but when the smoke cleared it wasn’t as bad for the Lady Tigers as it could have been.
Though LSU lost, it’s part of a four-team free-for-all for a pair of top four seeds in next week’s Southeastern Conference tournament that will come down to the final day of the regular season on Sunday.
Meanwhile, LSU appears to have dodged a potentially serious injury to its best player, junior guard Danielle Ballard.
With 9.3 seconds remaining, Ballard went down with an apparent knee injury away from the play that resulted in a foul on Ole Miss forward Tia Faleru. LSU led 57-56 at the time.
Ballard walked off the court before Faleru walked to the line and sank a pair of free throws, putting the Rebels back up by one.
Her team out of timeouts and her backcourt mate on the bench, LSU’s Raigyne Moncrief drove down and missed a jump shot in the lane, but the ball went off an Ole Miss player with 2.0 seconds remaining.
LSU’s DaShawn Harden inbounded to Moncrief from under the Lady Tigers’ basket. Moncrief put up an off balance 17-foot jump shot from just beyond the free throw line but she missed the rim as time expired.
LSU dropped to 15-12, 9-6 in the SEC, seriously endangering the Lady Tigers’ NCAA tournament hopes.
Coach Nikki Caldwell had strong words for her team on LSU’s postgame radio show.
“This ... has huge ramifications for us,” Caldwell said. “We have to feel this loss. We have to understand there’s a certain way to play when you put on the uniform.
“Tonight we did a disservice to the uniform.”
Though Ballard didn’t re-enter the game after her injury, LSU team spokesman Matt Dunaway said she was able to walk on her own after the game and should be able to play when the LSU hosts Texas A&M at 1 p.m. Sunday at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.
Minutes after LSU lost, Texas A&M was upset 70-69 by Missouri in College Station. The Aggies (22-7, 10-5) could have clinched a top four seed with a win but now will fight it out with LSU, Mississippi State (25-5, 10-5) and Kentucky (20-8, 9-6) for the No. 3 and No. 4 seeds in the SEC tournament.
State lost 69-50 at No. 2 South Carolina while Kentucky beat Arkansas 56-51.
LSU could finish anywhere from the No. 3 to the No. 6 seed. The top four seeds earn double byes into next Friday’s quarterfinals, while the No. 5 and 6 seeds will have to play on Thursday in the second round in North Little Rock, Arkansas.
State finishes at home Sunday against Ole Miss (17-11, 7-8) while Kentucky hosts South Carolina (27-1, 15-0), which clinched the SEC tournament’s No. 1 bye.
LSU holds tiebreakers with wins over State and Kentucky. The Lady Tigers could only fall as far as the No. 6 seed, and that if they lose to A&M and Kentucky beats South Carolina.
LSU could have enhanced its chances of a top-four seed and an NCAA bid with a win, but a cold offensive first half and poor defensive effort doomed the Lady Tigers from the start.
LSU fell behind by as many as 14 points in the first half before cutting the deficit to 27-23 at halftime. The Lady Tigers are now 0-10 this season when trailing at the half.
LSU fought back to take its first lead, 55-54 with 1:02 left on a three-point play by Ballard. Ole Miss pulled out the win despite not making a field goal in the final 8:22.
Arguably, the game was won and lost at the free-throw line.
The Rebels were 8 of 8 at the line in the final eight minutes while LSU was 7 of 16 for the game.
“Our inability to make free throws hurt us,” Caldwell said. “I’m more concerned with our inability to defend. We didn’t bring the same defensive intensity we had the first time we played Ole Miss.”
LSU routed Ole Miss 70-41 in the PMAC on Jan. 29.
Moncrief, who had just three points in a 63-41 loss Sunday at Arkansas, led all scorers with 18 points while Ballard had 14.
Gracie Frizzell and Erica Sisk led Ole Miss with 14 points each.