Associated Press photo by Patric Schneider -- LSU coach Nikki Caldwell exorts her team during the second half of a 55-48 loss to Texas A&M on Jan. 11 in College Station, Texas. The Lady Tigers are int he midst of a six-game stretch in which they play five ranked opponents.

A rough-and-tumble pre-conference schedule has given way to some promising results for the LSU Lady Tigers in Southeastern Conference play.

LSU won at Florida, came home and got dismantled by No. 1-ranked South Carolina, then routed Vanderbilt, and then played a strong first half before bowing at Texas A&M.

A 71-69 double overtime upset win Thursday at No. 15 Mississippi State pushed LSU’s record to 9-8 overall and 3-2 in SEC play, but the Lady Tigers have had little time to celebrate.

Up next: a home game with No. 10 Kentucky (15-3, 4-1 SEC), the fourth of five games in a six-game stretch for LSU against ranked opponents.

“That’s the SEC,” LSU coach Nikki Caldwell said Saturday. “We know how competitive it is.

“No matter what a team’s rankings are and your record, it’s about executing the game plan.”

Tipoff is set for 2 p.m. at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center. The game will be televised on ESPNU and can be heard on WBRP-FM 107.3 and in the Geaux Zone at

After starting the season with LSU’s worst nonconference record in 20 years (6-6), the Lady Tigers have shown steady improvement for two main reasons:

1. LSU’s players have bought in to the 2-3 zone that is Caldwell’s defense of choice.

2. Danielle Ballard is back.

“When we look at the mobility of our guard play, from Ray (Moncrief) to Rina (Hill) to Jasmine (Rhodes) to Danielle now, that’s an athletic group of guards,” Caldwell said. “We have Akilah Bethel in the back of our zone who is able to close out people like a guard.

“We’re doing a good job not overextending and over-rotating our defense. Defense is predicated on all five players moving as a unit. That’s a telling sign of a team learning to trust each other and be selfless.”

It’s a team that has had to assimilate Ballard into the equation after she was suspended for the season’s first 14 games.

She showed fleeting sparks in her first two games back, scoring four points each against Vandy and A&M. At State, she erupted, pouring in a game-high 24 points with 10 rebounds, including a rare 3-pointer to force a second overtime.

Despite her huge potential to change the arc of LSU’s season, Caldwell said she will again bring Ballard off the bench Sunday.

“I think there’s still room for her to get game ready,” Caldwell said. “I think she’s a competitor in every way, and any minutes she’s on the floor, she’s going to compete. She allows us to have another strong ball handler, make big plays, and is such a great rebounding guard. Her able to clear boards on the weak side has been huge.”

Senior DaShawn Harden continues to lead LSU with 11.9 points per game, followed by Moncrief with 10.8 points and a team-best 6.9 rebounds per contest.

LSU has won three of its past four at home against Kentucky, which lost point guard Janee Thompson last week to a season-ending leg injury. Kentucky did get back senior guard Bria Goss, who had missed six straight games with a broken thumb.

Without Thompson, UK struggled to get in a groove offensively in a 62-56 victory at home Thursday against Florida. Still, the Wildcats are led by one of the SEC’s top scorers, senior guard Jennifer O’Neill (14.4 ppg), and a top shot blocker in forward Azia Bishop (1.8 bpg).

“Baton Rouge is always a tough place to play,” Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell said. “LSU’s always well-coached, always has good players, and this year’s no different. They won a big game, showed a lot of toughness on the road against Mississippi State, and so it’ll be a huge challenge for our team to go on the road and see if we can earn a victory.”

Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.