Nikki Caldwell isn’t ready to give Danielle Ballard a start yet, but there’s no questioning the kick-start her return has given to Caldwell’s LSU women’s basketball team.
There’s no questioning her talent, either.
“Ballard is an All-American,” Caldwell said. “She’s one of the best guards in the country. And she has the ability to make the other people around her very good.”
Four games removed from the 14-game purgatory she found herself in to start this season, Ballard is more than hitting her midseason stride. She’s playing like she did in LSU’s three-game NCAA tournament run last season, when she averaged 23.3 points and 14.0 rebounds.
After scoring 24 points Thursday in LSU’s 71-69 double-overtime win at No. 15 Mississippi State — including a 3-pointer at the horn to force the second OT — Ballard bettered herself Sunday against No. 10 Kentucky.
This time, she scored 25 points, grabbed four rebounds, had five assists and added five steals as the Lady Tigers upset the Wildcats 84-79 before 2,555 in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.
“I feel great,” said Ballard, who spoke to the media for the first time since ending her suspension for a violation of unspecified team rules. “As Coach always says, you have to feed the person with the hot hand. I guess my teammates are feeding me the ball and I’m knocking down shots, and we’re playing as a team.”
LSU (10-8, 4-2 Southeastern) was 6-6 in pre-SEC play, its worst nonconference record in 20 years. After opening with an SEC win at struggling Florida, the Lady Tigers faced a make-or-break stretch with five of six games against ranked teams.
So far, LSU is 2-2 against ranked opponents, with a trip Thursday to face No. 6 Tennessee (15-2, 5-0) up next in LSU’s only regular-season meeting with the Lady Volunteers.
“Of course Danielle being back is a big positive for the team,” said senior forward Sheila Boykin, who had her third double-double with 14 points and a team-high 11 rebounds. “But we’re getting to be more unselfish. We’re making the extra pass, setting the screen, doing the little things that make the difference in the game.”
LSU now finds itself tied for fourth in SEC, in a logjam with four other teams.
“We finally turned the switch when we got that win at Mississippi State,” Caldwell said. “That’s a hard, hostile place to play. They believe now.”
The only negative for LSU was an eye injury suffered by senior guard DaShawn Harden. The Lady Tigers’ leading scorer at 11.9 points per game, Harden appeared to get tangled up with teammate Rina Hill early in the second half and get accidentally kicked or stepped on. She left the game with 15:27 left and didn’t return after scoring four points.
“They played even harder because they knew she was out,” said Caldwell, who said Harden wasn’t checked for a concussion and did not say whether she would be available for the Tennessee game. “We’ve seen this before. We saw Harden and Hill step up when (Raigyne) Moncrief went out last year (in the NCAA tournament). That’s the type of team and kids I have.”
The game was a seesaw affair throughout the first half, with 10 ties and five lead changes. LSU went back in front 41-38 with 1:11 left before halftime on a fast-break 3-pointer by freshman Jenna Deemer and led 43-38 at the break.
LSU stretched its lead to 55-45 with 13:33 left on a free-throw-line jumper by Ballard. But the Wildcats came clawing back, tying the Lady Tigers at 62 with 7:47 left on a Bria Goss free throw.
LSU responded with a 13-3 surge, capped by a drive by Jasmine Rhodes with 4:28 left to go up 75-65. Despite a couple of turnovers in the closing moments, the Lady Tigers never led by less than six after that.
“I really have so much respect for LSU for hanging in,” said UK coach Matthew Mitchell, who is 1-5 against LSU here. “I think they’re a really tough team, and I think Danielle’s a big reason they are playing well.”
Moncrief scored 15 points before fouling out with 30 seconds left. Jennifer O’Neill led five UK players in double figures with 19 points; Linnae Harper had 16 points and 15 rebounds.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.