Raigyne Louis says she always knew how this season was going to go.
LSU's underclassmen were going to struggle adjusting to college basketball, and they'd have to build some confidence during the first half of the season.
Sure enough, over the Lady Tigers' first month, through seven nonconference games, LSU often seemed lucky to realize its full potential from time to time, no matter what the final score was.
As a result, the Lady Tigers started the year 4-3, and the wins were mostly thanks to Louis or junior shooting guard Chloe Jackson putting the team on their backs and carrying them to victory.
But Louis had a second prediction: The freshmen would adjust, they would gain confidence and, most of all, they’d get better.
Over the past month, LSU won five of six games in Southeastern Conference play, including wins against Tennessee and Georgia. The Lady Tigers have gone from an NCAA tournament bubble team at No. 61 in the RPI rankings to the verge of the Top 25 for the first time since 2014.
LSU (15-6, 7-3) takes a three-game winning streak into its game at Auburn (11-11, 2-8), which tips off at 6 p.m. Thursday.
Ask players or coaches and they’re likely to give a different reason for the steady surge. They'll note anything from stronger post play to better defense, more rebounds or several other keys.
But everyone seems to agree that it started with the freshmen — just like Louis always knew it would.
“When you come in as a freshman, I dealt with it too — it’s confidence issues,” Louis said. “You’re at a whole different level. It’s not high school and free ball. It’s thinking. iIt’s scouting reports. It’s like you’re in school again.”
Coach Nikki Fargas said the area of greatest improvement is LSU’s dominant post play the past three games, starting when the Lady Tigers out-rebounded Tennessee, which is currently sixth in the nation with 44.7 boards per game.
LSU ranks 199th in the nation in average rebounds per game, but the Lady Tigers outperformed their last three opponents by double-digit margins.
A lot of that production has come from sophomore Ayana Mitchell, who's closer to becoming the part of a “big three” LSU envisioned at the beginning of the season.
But Mitchell only found success once freshman Faustine Aifuwa forced her way into the lineup.
Aifuwa wasn’t expected to contribute much this season with the focus on Mitchell and fellow freshman Raven Farley.
But then Aifuwa became a reliable player off the bench. A few games later, she proved herself invaluable and has since started the past six games.
“I’ve been more determined and focused to stop these big girls and figuring out how to defend them,” Aifuwa said. “Now that that responsibility has been given to me, I have to hold my ground in the paint. The fact I can do that is an improvement."
In the backcourt, LSU settled into a rhythm with sophomore point guard Jaelyn Richard-Harris after she opened the season in a position battle with freshman Khayla Pointer.
The rest of the improvements mostly come from bench players, who, like Louis predicted, grow more confident each game.
“We’re getting some players like Cherry in the last couple of games (to step up),” Fargas said. “Hadn’t been playing her. Didn’t know if I was going to. Wanted to make sure she was ready, so when you can sprinkle in Cherry getting some rebounds and putbacks, and then Pointer, she’s been more consistent coming off the bench for us, those little sparks have been positives for us from the young group."