NORTH LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — It’s the postseason, so that means it’s time for Danielle Ballard to come up big.
Bigger, even, than the space-eaters Texas A&M filled the lane with during the second half of Friday’s Southeastern Conference tournament game with LSU, using them to bang away at the Lady Tigers’ once 19-point lead until it was down to three.
LSU’s Raigyne Moncrief, plagued by foul trouble all day, sliced to the basket for a 65-60 lead with 1:14 left. But A&M was still very much in the running, especially when 6-foot-3 center Jada Terry rebounded a teammate’s miss with 44 seconds left.
Terry went back up for a shot, but the 5-foot-9 Ballard went higher. She wrenched the ball out of Terry’s hands, got fouled and made two free throws with 43.5 seconds left to make sure LSU stayed out in front for a 71-65 wire-to-wire victory at Verizon Arena.
“I saw her about to go up for the shot,” Ballard said. “I tried my best to take it from her because coach was saying to stay physical until the end of the game.”
Coach Nikki Caldwell was understandably pleased her directions were carried out, though she didn’t take credit for Caldwell’s knack for rebounding.
“Her ability to hone in and follow the basketball, that’s something you can’t teach,” Caldwell said. “That’s something that you’ve learned at an early age.”
Pushed back to the NCAA tournament bubble after two late-season losses at Arkansas and Ole Miss, the 17-12 Lady Tigers have likely moved back into safe territory with their second straight win over Texas A&M (LSU beat the Aggies at home Sunday 80-63).
The win was LSU’s fourth over a top 30 NCAA RPI team, its second away from home.
The Lady Tigers entered Friday’s game at No. 70 in the RPI, but after winning 10 SEC regular-season games and another here appear to have solidified their chances.
“Texas A&M is one of the best teams in the country,” Caldwell said. “We have been able to put together a body of work in our last 10 games which has shown our competitive nature.”
Up next: a semifinal showdown with top-seeded South Carolina (28-2), which smothered Arkansas 58-36 in Friday’s first game.
Tipoff is set for 4 p.m. on ESPNU. The game can be heard on WBRP-FM 107.3 and in the Geaux Zone at LSUSports.net.
Ballard finished with 22 points and 10 rebounds, her fourth straight postseason game of 20 points or more dating back to last year’s NCAA tournament when she averaged 23.3 points and 14.0 rebounds as she powered LSU to the Sweet 16.
She leads LSU with 14.8 points and 7.5 rebounds per contest.
“When you look at guard play across the country, I don’t know of any guard that’s rebounding the basketball like Ballard,” Caldwell said.
Rebounding is the word for LSU in general, after a 6-6 non-conference record all played without a then-suspended Ballard.
“We have a lot of basketball left in us,” Caldwell said. “We don’t want to cut our season short.”
As in the game in Baton Rouge on Sunday, LSU bolted out to a big lead on A&M and never trailed.
The Lady Tigers opened with a 13-0 run, getting three baskets from Ballard and a 3-pointer from DaShawn Harden, who dropped a career-high 28 points on A&M Sunday.
LSU took its biggest lead at 24-5 with 11:40 left in the half on a pair of free throws by Moncrief and led 44-31 at halftime.
The Aggies used their size advantage in the second half to pull within 63-60 with 1:33 left on a top of the key two-pointer by Courtney Williams.
LSU then really looked like it was in dire straits as A&M pressed on the inbounds pass and forced a turnover. Curtyce Knox missed a jumper and the Lady Tigers’ Akilah Bethel rebounded, leading to the Moncrief basket that turned back A&M’s biggest threat.
“LSU has turned into a very good ballclub late in the year,” A&M coach Gary Blair said. “A lot of it’s Ballard. There’s not a guard in our league that goes to the boards as well as she does. She just wills her way in there.”
Moncrief added 14 points and Harden 10 for LSU, which was outrebounded 41-33. Williams led the Aggies with 19 points while Knox had 12.
Marrero’s Tori Scott, a Texas A&M senior guard, did not play.
LSU lost twice by 24 points to South Carolina in the regular season, 75-51 at home on Jan. 4 and 86-62 in Columbia on Feb. 12.
The Lady Tigers will again be at a big size disadvantage, so Caldwell said her team will have to pick its spots to go to the basket.
“We want to be smart and attack the rim at the right time with great spacing, but be aware you need to make the extra pass,” she said.
“We’re going to have the ball in Ballard and Moncrief’s hands quite a bit.”
Shooting, and rebounding.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.