The LSU women’s basketball team is starting the NCAA tournament in Columbus, Ohio.
The Lady Tigers’ goal, as it is for the other 63 teams in the tournament: finish there.
Columbus is the site of this year’s Women’s Final Four. First, though, the city will host first- and second-round games Saturday and Monday, with LSU set to take on Central Michigan at Ohio State’s venerable St. John Arena.
Tip off is set for 10 a.m. on ESPN2 between the Lady Tigers (19-9), the No. 6 seed in the Spokane Regional, and No. 11 Central Michigan (28-4) on ESPN2. That game will be followed by No. 3 Ohio State (27-6) against No. 14 George Washington (19-13).
The winners meet Monday, with the survivor of that game advancing to Spokane, Washington.
Then, with a little luck and some great play, they may get to come back.
“Someone hinted at practice that we might be going there,” LSU senior guard Raigyne Louis said. “We made it there, now we’ve got to stay.”
LSU entered Selection Monday with a solid RPI of 29, meaning it wasn’t a question of whether the Lady Tigers would get an NCAA bid but where would they go and what would they be seeded. LSU was projected to be a No. 6 seed by ESPN, but playing at UCLA instead of Ohio State.
Dozens of fans and family, plus a few LSU men’s basketball players, were with the team during a watch party in the Legends Club of the Pete Maravich Assembly Center. The Lady Tigers sat through the Albany Regional and part of the Spokane Regional before seeing “LSU” flash up on the big projection screen, their cheers drowning out the ESPN audio as more of the bracket was revealed.
“It’s a blessing,” Louis said. “It’s very exciting to have a big opportunity to play in the Big Dance.
“I have one more shot. We’re going to try to go far this time.”
This will be LSU’s 26th NCAA appearance and sixth in seven years under coach Nikki Fargas. The Lady Tigers haven’t made it out of the first round in their past two appearances, losing 55-52 to California last year in Waco, Texas, and 73-64 at South Florida in 2015. LSU last reached the second weekend of the NCAA tournament in 2014, when they lost in the round of 16 at Louisville.
“We had a quick exit last year,” Fargas said. “We fell short, and it’s a long road to get back. It’s not easy to be one of those teams whose name is called.”
Central Michigan won the Mid-American Conference regular-season title and captured an automatic NCAA bid Saturday when it defeated Buffalo 96-91 in the MAC tournament final in Cleveland.
The Chippewas are making their fourth NCAA appearance and second under coach Sue Guevara, a former assistant at Auburn (2004-07). Central Michigan has never won a postseason game: 0-3 in NCAA play and 0-5 in the WNIT, all of the latter appearances under Guevara.
"I don't want to do the two-step: One step in, one step out," Guevara said after her team won the MAC tournament. "I want to cha-cha a little bit. We want to go and show people that the MAC is a very, very good conference.”
Central Michigan certainly has Fargas’ attention. CMU beat their only common opponent, Vanderbilt, 92-75, while LSU beat the Lady Commodores 85-65.
“They have a balanced attack,” Fargas said of the Chippewas. “They have five players who average in double figures. They can shoot the 3 and can score at a high rate.”
Central Michigan is led by 6-foot-3 senior forward Tinara Moore, who averages 18.7 points and 9.8 rebounds per game. Presley Hudson, a 5-6 junior guard, averages 18.3 points per contest, while 6-foot junior forward Reyna Frost leads the team with 11.8 rebounds along with 14.1 points per game. Overall, CMU averages 82.5 points per game.
The thrill of reaching the postseason brings with it the knowledge that it’s win or go home.
“It’s a new season,” sophomore forward Ayana Mitchell said. “We’ve worked hard to try to get better. You’ve got to play your heart out.”
The Lady Tigers will practice at home Tuesday and Wednesday before flying to Columbus on Thursday.
“This is it,” Louis said. “No more chances. There’s no going back.”
Unless, of course, you play your way back to Columbus for the Final Four.