NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Not bad. Not great.
That was the prediction for the LSU Lady Tigers back in October at Southeastern Conference basketball media days.
Coming off a 20-12 season with an NCAA tournament first-round loss and a tie for seventh in the SEC, LSU was picked to finish in that spot in conference again.
Instead of settling for predictable mediocrity, the Lady Tigers (19-8, 11-5 SEC) fought their way into a four-way tie for fourth with Texas A&M, Missouri and Tennessee. LSU possessed enough grit to go a combined 4-1 against those teams and capture the SEC tournament’s No. 4 seed and a prized double bye.
“This group can hold their heads up high and say we played a lot of great teams that have a lot of great players,” LSU coach Nikki Fargas said. “We stood toe-to-toe with them and we were able to come up with some great wins.”
LSU will need to come up with yet another great win against one of those teams to advance. No. 5-seeded Texas A&M easily brushed aside No. 13 Arkansas in Thursday’s second round 82-52, setting up a showdown between the Lady Tigers and Aggies in Friday’s quarterfinals at Bridgestone Arena.
Tipoff will be at approximately 2:30 p.m., depending how long Friday’s first game at noon between No. 1 Mississippi State and No. 9 Kentucky runs. All four games Friday are on the SEC Network.
Despite the double bye, LSU can still mine a vein of “everyone doubted us” attitude in this game without the nervewracking stress of needing to win to make the NCAA tournament. The Lady Tigers, No. 24 in this week’s Associated Press poll and No. 26 in Thursday’s RPI, are projected an NCAA No. 6 seed by ESPN.
“We still have something to prove,” senior guard Raigyne Louis said. “But we’re not under pressure compared to some of the other years I’ve been here. We’re in, we’re just trying to get a higher (NCAA) seed.”
Truth to tell, Louis was among those who wondered what this team could do. LSU possesses arguably the SEC’s best offensive backcourt duo in Louis and junior Chloe Jackson, but green in the low post despite three players who go 6-foot-4 or taller.
“I knew what type of team we were,” Louis said, “it was just a matter of would we put it together. I knew what everyone could bring to the table.
“Actually doing it surprised me. I’m truly grateful for that.”
Texas A&M (22-8) beat LSU 69-59 on Jan. 22 in College Station, but LSU won the rematch three weeks later on Feb. 11 in Baton Rouge, an 80-78 thriller which came down to a last missed desperation 3-pointer by the Aggies’ Chennedy Carter at the final horn.
Carter hasn’t missed much this season. The SEC’s second-leading scorer and tops in the NCAA among freshman with 21.5 points per game, she was limited to a season-low eight points at LSU. It’s the only time this season she’s been below double figures.
Just as much of a challenge is 6-5 senior center Khaalia Hillsman. She was virtually unstoppable in Baton Rouge with 23 points and nine rebounds.
“I don’t know how much game-planning you can do for a player like Hillsman,” Fargas said. “You have to be ready for the physicality of the game. You take aspects where you don’t necessarily focus on plays but more ball man defense, how do we match up, what do we do on close outs and how do we finish our defense with a box out.
“It really boils down to the will to continue to play. Survive and advance and how tough you’re going to be. To me, that’s really what postseason is about.”
The winner will likely get unbeaten Mississippi State in Saturday’s semifinals, a tough task for either team. But it is March, and it is time to dream big.
For the Lady Tigers, that means dreams of upsets, cutting down nets and snagging a top-four NCAA regional seed so they can host first- and second-round games in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.
“We want to win,” Jackson said. “It’s that simple. We’re going to go in and try to shock even more people and take the title.”
NOTES: LSU is 36-37 all-time in the SEC tournament, including a 1-0 mark against Texas A&M. … The Lady Tigers won titles in 1991 and 2003, and have reached the final seven other times. … Louis needs six steals to become the third LSU player with 300 career steals. … Long-time LSU men’s and later women’s assistant coach Bob Starkey (1990-2011), who served as interim coach during the Lady Tigers’ run to the 2007 Women’s Final Four, is in his sixth season as a Texas A&M assistant.