After forwards Akilah Bethel and Tatum Neubert suffered injuries during practice Sunday, adding two more names to LSU’s seemingly never-ending list of maladies, coach Nikki Fargas’ husband Justin jokingly posed her a question.
“Can y’all not wear helmets?” asked the former NFL running back.
Protective headgear might have saved the Lady Tigers from only a few of the injuries that have whittled the roster down to eight healthy scholarship athletes. Just six players logged more than a minute in LSU’s most recent game, a 63-53 loss to Auburn on Monday night, and one of them was Bethel — who wore a face mask to shield her broken nose.
The Lady Tigers’ schedule isn’t much more merciful than the injury bug. The team is mired in a seven-day stretch that features three Southeastern Conference opponents, a week’s worth of work that will end a few hours after No. 11 Mississippi State and LSU tip off at 8 p.m. Thursday in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.
“I think we’re starting to get used to it,” junior guard Rina Hill said of playing with a limited rotation. “I know it’s tough, but that’s all we’ve got right now. We’ve just got to keep fighting and find a way to win ballgames with six or seven of us.”
Short-handed LSU (8-14, 2-7 SEC) nearly found a way to win Monday, cutting its fourth-quarter deficit to 38-34 before a 15-3 Auburn run dashed away any hopes of victory. The Lady Bulldogs (19-4, 6-3 SEC), however, present a tougher challenge.
Sophomore guard Victoria Vivians is the conference’s third-leading scorer at 17.5 points per game, and coach Fargas said her shooting range is “near half-court.” But the Lady Tigers are aware there’s another dimension to Vivans’ repertoire.
“This year she has increased her game by driving to the basket a little bit more, making more off-the-dribble moves,” junior guard Jasmine Rhodes said. “That’s going to be another threat.”
Hill, who played all 40 minutes against Auburn, said the key to stopping a dynamic scorer like Vivians is to put her in one-on-five situations with crisp team defense. LSU’s coach knows she needs to properly manage her players’ minutes to keep them fresh and active on defense, a task made even more difficult than usual by the Lady Tigers’ short bench.
“We’ve got our work cut out for us,” she said. “As coaches we have to be creative in our strategy and making sure that we have the legs that we need to perform on game day.”
Mississippi State’s offense poses enough of a challenge on its own, averaging 74.4 points per game behind a 40.6 percent shooting clip. LSU, on the other hand, has scored more than 50 points only three times in league play.
Fargas has her team bracing for a “battle of the paint,” where the Lady Bulldogs boast three players who are 6-foot-3 or taller. That has translated to more than 42 rebounds per game and a plus-eight rebounding margin.
With the odds stacked heavily against the undermanned Lady Tigers, Fargas’ message to the team has been simple.
“She tells us to keep fighting and be aggressive out there,” Hill said. “Have fun and be confident when you’re on the floor. I think we definitely have to take a lot from that especially on the offensive end. We have to be more aggressive and take pride in scoring the ball.”