Ballard leads LSU over Georgia _lowres

Advocate staff photo by HILARY SCHEINUK -- Coach Nikki Caldwell and the Lady Tigers are celebrating and NCAA bid and a trip to Tampa, Florida.

The LSU extreme makeover season, sponsored by Danielle Ballard, got back on track Thursday night.

The Lady Tigers saw their four-game winning streak snapped a week earlier with an 86-62 loss at No. 2-ranked South Carolina.

But led by a double-double from Ballard, LSU returned home and took advantage of slumping Georgia for a key 64-52 Southeastern Conference victory at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.

LSU improved to 15-10 overall and 9-4 in SEC play, moving into a three-way tie for third place with Mississippi State and Texas A&M, a game ahead of Kentucky.

Those four teams are vying for the third and fourth seeds in next month’s SEC tournament and a double bye that puts teams straight into the quarterfinals.

It’s an important benchmark when you consider this added factoid: since the NCAA women’s tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1994, only one SEC team that earned a top four conference tournament seed failed to earn an NCAA bid as well.

It seemed folly to even consider LSU could be in NCAA contention after a rocky 6-6 pre-conference schedule, the Lady Tigers’ worst in 20 years.

But that was before Ballard returned to the team after a 14-game suspension. Since the junior guard’s return, LSU is 8-3 and squarely in the postseason hunt.

Ballard was at her smooth scoring, relentless rebounding best Thursday, scoring 13 points and pulling down a game-high 12 rebounds. It’s her fourth double-double of the season and second straight.

Raigyne Moncrief led the Lady Tigers in scoring with 16 points, scoring LSU’s last six points as they extinguished Georgia’s hopes of an upset.

The Lady Bulldogs dropped to 17-9 and 5-8 in SEC play with their sixth straight loss.

Georgia has struggled on offense since losing top scorer Shacobia Barbee five games ago to a season-ending broken leg.

Georgia hadn’t scored more than 48 points in any of its last three games. Though the Lady Bulldogs did slightly better against LSU, they weren’t able to take the lead after a DaShawn Harden 3-pointer put the Lady Tigers ahead for good 9-6 with 15:44 left in the first half.

Harden made another 3-pointer the next time down, part of a 17-3 run that put LSU up 19-9 at the 11:31 mark. The Lady Tigers led 34-28 at halftime and never by less than four points in the second half.

Tiaria Griffin led Georgia with 14 points while Mackenzie Engram had 13.

LSU now hits the road for two straight games, Sunday at Arkansas and next Thursday at Ole Miss before returning for its final home game March 1 against Texas A&M.

Johnson honored

Former Lady Tigers All-American point guard Temeka Johnson was recognized on the court during the first half Thursday as LSU’s SEC legend for 2015.

Each year at the SEC women’s tournament, a former women’s athlete or coach from each school is honored at halftime of their team’s first game.

A Bonnabel High School graduate, Johnson helped lead the Lady Tigers to their first two of five straight Women’s Final Four appearances in 2004 and 2005. She was an All-American in 2005 and won the Lieberman Award that year given to the nation’s top point guard.

This year’s SEC tournament is March 4-9 in North Little Rock, Arkansas.

Wright, too

Longtime LSU radio announcer Patrick Wright was also honored before the game for his 25 seasons of calling Lady Tigers games.

Wright was presented with a No. 25 basketball jersey.

Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.