DULUTH, Ga. — Rankings meant nothing, LSU coach Nikki Caldwell told her team, as they fought back from the brink with a six-game winning streak to end the regular season that included victories over three opponents rated in the top 13 nationally.
Rankings mean nothing now, Caldwell perhaps wishfully insists, as the No. 22 Lady Tigers open Southeastern Conference tournament play Thursday against No. 11-seeded Auburn with a target squarely drawn on their jerseys.
“We’re the same team that we were when we were not ranked,” Caldwell said Wednesday. “We have eight players on the roster here to compete with the loss of Sheila Boykin (to Guillain-Barré syndrome). We’ve been able to rally around each other. We’ve been able to put up a string of very good wins.
“They’ve always been capable, and now they’re believing they can do it.”
Tipoff is set for 7:30 p.m. at the Gwinnett Center between LSU (19-10), the No. 6 seed in the tournament, and Auburn (16-13). The winner advances to play No. 3-seeded Georgia, which has a bye, in Friday’s quarterfinals.
The similarities to which LSU fought back from a similar brink last season are plain to see.
That Lady Tigers team won five straight before dropping their season finale at Georgia, while this year’s team finished with a flourish with an impressive 67-52 upset at Texas A&M.
Last year’s LSU team rebounded from the Georgia loss to reach the SEC tournament final in Nashville, Tenn., beating regular-season champion Kentucky along the way before losing in the championship game to Tennessee.
LSU guard Jeanne Kenney believes her team learned to finish better this season from that loss at Georgia a year ago.
“Last year, I felt that when we had our last game at Georgia, it was another ranked team, we were satisfied with just securing the fourth (seed in the SEC tournament), and we just got killed.
“We’re staying focused for this game. We came back focused in the second half (at Texas A&M) from a 13-point deficit and came out on top by 15. That’s huge. It’s exciting.”
Now, at an arena halfway between downtown Atlanta and Georgia’s campus in Athens, the Lady Tigers will try to mount another march to the final.
LSU has been there 10 times, including five of the past eight years, but hasn’t won the SEC title since 2003.
“I feel like we’re a different kind of good from last year,” said Kenney, who will again come off the bench because of a nagging foot injury. “We’re just keeping going, riding the momentum.”
Before LSU toppled the likes of Georgia, Kentucky and A&M to close the regular season, the Lady Tigers closed out January with a stop-the-bleeding 59-55 win at Auburn.
The win snapped a four-game SEC road losing streak for LSU. And though it was long ago, Caldwell hasn’t forgotten the challenges the Auburn Tigers pose to her Lady Tigers.
“They’re long and athletic, so we have to take care of the basketball,” Caldwell said. “Give ourselves the opportunities we need on the offensive end, and try to be more aggressive, not passive.
“On the other end, we have to defend them. They’re a very balanced team with their guard play and post play. They really muscled us around in the last game. If they wanted a position on the block, they got it. But hopefully our post defense has become a little better as of late.”
Auburn, whose loss to LSU was in the midst of an eight-game losing streak, has since recovered a bit to win three of its past five. Auburn is led by 6-feet-1 sophomore guard Hasina Muhammad, averaging 14.7 points and 5.0 rebounds per game. Junior Tyrese Tanner, another 6-1 guard, averages 13.0 points per game while 6-3 senior forward Blanche Alverson averages 12.6.
LSU is led by first-team All-SEC junior forward Theresa Plaisance. The 6-5 former Vandebilt Catholic standout comes into the SEC tournament second in the conference in scoring with 17.6 points per game, sixth in rebounding (8.2) and first in blocks (2.8).
Adrienne Webb, LSU’s 5-9 senior guard and a second-team All-SEC pick, ranks 10th in the SEC with 13.9 points per game. Danielle Ballard, another 5-9 guard, averages 12.6 points per game, leads the SEC with 3.1 steals, and has posted double-doubles (points and rebounds) her past two games.
“They’re definitely playing much better now and with a lot of confidence,” first-year coach Terry Williams-Flournoy said of LSU. “But they didn’t play bad against us. Webb hit some big shots, and Ballard and Plaisance are still playing well. They’ve gotten consistently better.”
The demarcation line for LSU’s better play came after a bitter 64-62 come-from-ahead loss to Tennessee in which LSU squandered the lead in the final minute.
“That loss to Tennessee sparked something in us,” starting forward Shanece McKinney said. “That game should have been ours. We made a vow that from here on out, it’s on. We’re not losing anymore. Everything that comes our way, we’re smashing it.”
And rankings, or a lack of them, mean nothing.