The LSU extreme makeover season, sponsored by the Lady Tigers’ Dynamic Duo, got back on track Thursday night.
LSU saw its four-game winning streak snapped a week earlier with an 86-62 loss at No. 2-ranked South Carolina.
But led by double doubles from Raigyne Moncrief and Danielle Ballard, the Lady Tigers returned home and took advantage of slumping Georgia for a key 64-52 Southeastern Conference victory before 1,602 fans at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.
LSU improved to 15-10 overall and 9-4 in SEC play, moving into a three-way tie for third place with Mississippi State and Texas A&M, a game ahead of Kentucky.
Those four teams are vying for the third and fourth seeds in next month’s SEC tournament and a double bye that puts teams straight into the quarterfinals.
Earning a top four seed is an important benchmark. Since the NCAA women’s tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1994, only one SEC team that earned a top four conference tournament seed failed to earn an NCAA bid as well.
Additionally, since the SEC expanded to a 16-game conference schedule in 2010, SEC teams that win 10 league games are 22-for-22 being tabbed for NCAA play.
LSU is now on the cusp of that 10-win mark with its fourth win against a top 50 RPI team (Georgia entered play Thursday at No. 49; the Lady Tigers were at No. 63), boosting their NCAA résumé.
It seemed folly to even consider the Lady Tigers could be in NCAA contention after a rocky 6-6 pre-conference schedule, their worst in 20 years.
But that was before Ballard returned to the team after a 14-game suspension. Since the junior guard’s reinstatement, LSU is 8-3 and squarely in the postseason hunt.
Ballard was at her smooth scoring, relentless rebounding best Thursday, scoring 13 points and pulling down a game-high 12 rebounds. It’s her fourth double-double of the season and second straight.
But Moncrief was just as big. She led the Lady Tigers in scoring with 16 points, including LSU’s last six as the Lady Tigers extinguished Georgia’s hopes of an upset.
“They are Batman and Robin,” LSU coach Nikki Caldwell said with a satisfied smile.
“They’re complimenting each other. It’s nice to have to players making clutch baskets for you. That’s what they’ve done throughout SEC play. If you look at our shot chart late in games, that’s whose taking those shots. The team is OK with that. Sheila (Boykin) and (Anne) Pedersen set those screens because they know they’re going to know they’re going to knock down those shots.”
Georgia coach Andy Landers knew it too, but at times his team was powerless to stop it.
“Danielle and Moncrief hit those shots when they needed to hit shots,” said Landers, whose team dropped to 17-9 and 5-8 in SEC play with its sixth straight loss. “The other thing that happened that was important is any time we get that shot clock down to three, two, or one, they hit shots. I think they did that three or four times.
“If you are LSU, that was a great night.”
Georgia has struggled on offense since losing top scorer Shacobia Barbee five games ago to a season-ending broken leg. The Bulldogs were also without starting forwards Krista Donald (sprained ankle) and Merritt Hempe (illness).
Georgia took its only lead early at 6-2 before LSU countered with a 17-3 run to go up 19-9 at the 11:31 mark fueled by a pair of 3-pointers from DaShawn Harden. The Lady Tigers led 34-28 at halftime.
LSU never led by less than four in the second half but broke Georgia’s last big rally with an athletic play by Ballard.
Georgia was on a 12-3 run, cutting LSU’s lead from 48-32 to 51-44 with five minutes left when Harden turned over the ball near midcourt.
Georgia’s Tiaria Griffin looked like she would gain control, but Ballard flashed in and tipped the ball off Griffin. It caromed to Harden, who drove for a layup and a 53-44 lead with 4:57 remaining.
Griffin cut the LSU lead to seven again next time down, but the Lady Tigers scored 11 of the game’s last 17 points from the 4:30 mark, eight of them by Moncrief.
Griffin led Georgia with 14 points while Mackenzie Engram had 13.
LSU now hits the road for games Sunday at Arkansas and next Thursday at Ole Miss before wrapping up the regular season at home March 1 against Texas A&M. … Former LSU All-American point guard Temeka Johnson was recognized during the first half. Johnson will be honored as LSU’s legend during the first half of the Lady Tigers’ first SEC tournament game next month in North Little Rock, Arkansas. … Long-time LSU radio announcer Patrick Wright was also honored before the game for his 25 seasons of calling the Lady Tigers. Wright was presented with a framed purple No. 25 basketball jersey.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.