Cinderella got invited to the ball.
Overcoming their worst nonconference record in 20 years and playing half their season without their best player, the LSU Lady Tigers received an at-large invitation Monday night to the NCAA women’s basketball tournament.
LSU (17-13) is the No. 11 seed in the Albany regional and will take on No. 6-seeded South Florida (26-7) on its home court in Tampa. The game is set for 5:30 p.m. Saturday at the USF Sun Dome and will be televised on ESPN2.
The winner takes on Louisville (25-6), the No. 3 seed, or No. 14 BYU (23-9), in Tampa on Monday. The winner of that game advances to the Sweet 16 next week in Albany, New York.
LSU lost at Louisville in the Sweet 16 last season.
“We’re excited that we were able to warrant having our named called,” said LSU coach Nikki Caldwell, who watched the NCAA selection show at home with her team, staff and family. “We’re excited about the competition.
“We’re looking forward to going to Tampa. We’re going to use that as motivation, because we want to be there for the Final Four as well.”
The Women’s Final Four will be played at Amalie Arena in downtown Tampa. It’s the site of the last of LSU’s five consecutive Women’s Final Four appearances in 2008.
It’s only about 12 miles from the Sun Dome to the site of the Final Four, but a rough and twisting road awaits the Lady Tigers if they want to make it there, considering they’re in the same regional as No. 1 overall tournament seed Connecticut.
Then again, it’s a journey LSU almost didn’t get to begin at all.
LSU and Tulane, which beat the Lady Tigers 51-45 on Nov. 19 in Baton Rouge, were among the last four at-large teams slotted into the field of 64.
“The last four in and last four our are probably the toughest decisions the committee has to make,” NCAA selection committee chairman Dru Hancock said.
“LSU obviously played in a very strong conference in the SEC. They played several games without one of their top players, Danielle Ballard, who is back and healthy. That clearly made a difference.”
Ballard, LSU’s All-SEC junior guard, returned from a 14-game suspension two games into SEC play to fan the flames of what then seemed doused NCAA tournament hopes.
With Ballard, the Lady Tigers went 10-6 in SEC play and earned the No. 4 seed in the SEC tournament, both important benchmarks.
No 10-win SEC team has ever been left out of the NCAA tournament in its current format, and since 1994 only two No. 4 seeds from the SEC tournament had failed to receive a bid.
“I think they (selection committee members) had to take into consideration we were without our best player the first half of the season and played a very competitive non-conference schedule,” Caldwell said. “
“I think they recognized the strength of our conference and our quality wins: two over Texas A&M, we beat Kentucky, and that Ballard was back with our team.”
With the LSU men’s team earning an NCAA bid Sunday, this will mark the 13th time the Tigers and Lady Tigers are in the NCAA tournaments in the same season. The Lady Tigers are making their 24th NCAA appearance and 16th in the last 17 seasons.
“Our men’s team works extremely hard,” Caldwell said. “They were definitely a team worthy of a bid.”
The fact LSU is playing South Florida on its home court is only because of a scheduling quirk.
This year the NCAA women’s tournament went away from pre-determined first- and second-round sites — LSU was a host site the last three years — to putting the first two rounds on home courts of the top four seeds in each regional.
South Florida is the only non-top four seed hosting. Louisville would have been in line to do that, but the second and third rounds of the men’s tournament are being played Thursday and Saturday at the Cardinals’ KFC Yum! Center.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.