As January draws to a close, the LSU Lady Tigers face a decisive final five weeks of their season filled with both opportunities and dangers.
LSU righted the ship two weeks ago with wins over ranked teams in Mississippi State and Kentucky, but a 75-58 loss a week ago at then No. 5 Tennessee pushed the Lady Tigers back closer to the brink.
A four-game stretch before a trip Feb. 12 to face No. 1 South Carolina is filled with winnable games against Ole Miss, Missouri, Auburn and Alabama — but also some losable ones. That makes it critical for the Lady Tigers’ flickering NCAA tournament hopes to hold serve Thursday night at home against Ole Miss.
“We want to have a sense of urgency regardless of who the next opponent is,” LSU coach Nikki Caldwell said. “We have an opportunity Thursday to show that we have improved.”
Tipoff is set for 8 p.m. in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center between the Lady Tigers (10-9, 4-3 Southeastern Conference) and the Rebels (14-6, 4-3).
The game will be televised on the SEC Network and can be heard on WBRP-FM, 107.3 and in the Geaux Zone at LSUSports.net.
LSU’s NCAA RPI climbed to 76 on Wednesday. Only three teams with more losses are ranked higher. ESPN women’s basketball expert Charlie Crème in this week’s women’s “bracketology” lists LSU among the second set of four teams out of the NCAA field of 64, respectable considering the struggling start the Lady Tigers had.
Now they must start winning again against an Ole Miss team that has lost two straight at Texas A&M (58-49) and to Mississippi State (64-62) to fall to No. 91 in the RPI.
Despite those losses, Caldwell said Ole Miss presents quite a challenge.
“They are one of the best running teams in the country,” she said. “They play the style Kentucky plays and have an explosive post player like Tennessee has.
“They have a lot of things in common with the top teams in the country.”
The Lady Tigers should be bolstered by the return of DaShawn Harden. The senior guard sat out the Tennessee game after taking an elbow to the eye Jan. 18 against Kentucky.
Caldwell said she plans to bring Harden off the bench, going with the same starting lineup from a week ago that included junior guard Danielle Ballard.
Ballard has been a huge spark for LSU in the past five games since returning from a 14-game suspension to start the season. Though her statistical sample size is comparatively small, Ballard leads LSU with 14.4 points per game and averages 5.4 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 2.0 steals per contest.
Caldwell said LSU will also have more depth in the low post with Ann Jones (knees) and Alliyah Fareo (arm).
Jones, a transfer from Memphis, played 14 minutes at Tennessee, her most court time since Dec. 28. Fareo, a freshman from Australia, has missed the past 12 games, last seeing the court Dec. 3 against Louisiana Tech.
The Lady Tigers will need the help as they try to neutralize one of the SEC’s best post players in 6-foot-1 senior forward Tia Faleru. A preseason All-SEC coaches’ pick, Faleru averages a double-double with 15.6 points and 10.6 rebounds per game.
“We need to disrupt her vision of the ball by applying ball pressure,” Caldwell said. “Faleru is an unbelievable offensive rebounder. We’ve got to keep her off the glass … (and) match her intensity.”
LSU plays at home again Monday against Mizzou.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.