March Madness is thick with compelling storylines.
Raigyne Moncrief has her own.
Eight minutes. That’s the extent of the LSU sophomore guard’s NCAA tournament experience last year. Initially saddled by foul trouble, Moncrief blew out her left knee driving to the basket with 15 minutes, 45 seconds left in the Lady Tigers’ 98-78 first-round win over Georgia Tech.
A year later she’s back, arguably better than she was then, leading LSU into its NCAA tournament opener in her home state against South Florida.
It promises to be a hostile atmosphere in Tampa’s Sun Dome. This is USF’s first time to host an NCAA tournament game on campus, and a pep rally was planned before the game.
Moncrief will have a rooting section of family and friends who will make the cross-state, four-hour drive from Fort Lauderdale to watch her play.
It’s easy, Moncrief said, for her to go too fast, to get too excited.
“I’m a hyper person,” said Moncrief, who’s second on the team with 11.7 points per game. “I’ve got to relax.”
March isn’t exactly the time for that, but Moncrief and the No. 11 seed Lady Tigers (17-13) will do their best to stay calm against No. 6 South Florida (26-7) in their Albany regional opener.
Tipoff is set for about 5:30 p.m. on ESPN2 — or about 30 minutes after Saturday’s first game between No. 3 Louisville and No. 14 BYU.
The winners meet Monday night to advance to the Sweet 16. LSU is trying to make its third straight trip.
It’s a tougher path this time.
LSU bid for and hosted NCAA first- and second-round games during coach Nikki Caldwell’s first three seasons in Baton Rouge. This year, the NCAA decided to award first- and second-round sites to the top four seeds in each region.
The one outlier: South Florida. Louisville was in line to host, but because the Cardinals’ home court is being used for the NCAA men’s tournament, the games were shifted to Tampa.
Though making just its third NCAA appearance, USF earned its first national rankings this season (No. 25 in both polls) and with a win would tie the best record in school history.
USF is led by a nationally ranked scoring and rebounding tandem. Courtney Williams, a 5-foot-8 junior guard, is 24th in the nation, averaging 20.2 points per game. Alisia Jenkins, a 6-1 junior forward, is 11th at 11.6 rebounds per game.
“Obviously, (Williams) is their best player, but they’ve got a very sound supporting cast,” Caldwell said. “They’ve got a balanced attack. At any time, players can step up and make plays.
“Defensively, their guard play gets after you. They support each other, so moving the basketball, player movement and extra pass — those are going to be keys for us. This time of year, you control the tempo with your board play. They do a phenomenal job of getting on the offensive glass.”
Phenomenal was the word for LSU junior guard Danielle Ballard in last year’s tournament.
With Moncrief going down in the Georgia Tech game and point guard Jeanne Kenney sidelined with a concussion in the next game against West Virginia, Ballard put the Lady Tigers on her shoulders and carried them to the Sweet 16.
Ballard averaged 23 points and 14 rebounds in LSU’s three NCAA games, one of the best individual performances of the tournament.
If guard play spells success in March, LSU has a chance. Ballard, Moncrief and resurgent senior guard DaShawn Harden — she’s 12-of-20 from 3-point range in her past three games — form a potent backcourt.
“They’re a lot better than their record, and they’re a lot better than an 11 seed — I guarantee you that,” USF coach Jose Fernandez said.
Moncrief isn’t the only Lady Tiger enjoying a homecoming of sorts Saturday.
Backup point guard Rina Hill is the first LSU student-athlete from Japan, but she prepped at IMG Academy in nearby Bradenton. Forward Anne Pedersen is from Denmark but spent her last year of high school in Gainesville. A fourth-year junior, Pedersen said she is undecided on whether she will return for a fifth year.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.