LSU women’s basketball coach Nikki Fargas is leaving it to her players to do the math with a key stretch in their season approaching.
The Lady Tigers (11-4, 2-1 in SEC play) aren’t exactly on a roll going into Sunday’s 4 p.m. tipoff against No. 21/25 South Carolina (11-4, 3-0) at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center. Four days later, No. 16 Kentucky rolls into town.
Fargas is counting on her team’s competitiveness to push through a big test with some parts still falling into place.
“There’s something about playing against a team with a number in front of their name when you don’t,” Fargas said. “You’re trying to get to the place they’re at. As a competitor, you’ve got to position yourself to win this game Sunday. We have nothing to lose but everything to gain.”
A team with one senior among a still-improving cast won a 55-41 decision last time out at Ole Miss, a less-than-perfect effort that included 23 turnovers and an inability to build on a 17-point halftime lead. But with LSU students having returned last week, it will be the first chance for an SEC-type atmosphere — though the timing of tipoff, 20 minutes after the Saints kick off against the Eagles, could affect the crowd size.
LSU has the top scoring defense in the SEC thanks to a relentless full-court press that is running head on into a team with talented guards on a seven-game winning streak. Improvement from players like point guard Khayla Pointer, forward Faustine Aifuwa and reserve Mercedes Brooks has raised the level of play in recent weeks.
“We are still a work in progress,” Fargas said. “We had a setback at Ole Miss. We didn’t take care of the ball or shoot well from the field. Behind every setback is comeback. We want to make memories, want to have the PMAC rocking on Sunday.”
Pointer is a good place to start. She scored 22 points in a victory against Texas A&M and had a strong all-around game against Ole Miss with 10 points, six assists and a willingness to create. A reserve last year, she’s adapted to becoming more of a scorer, with Raigyne Louis and Chloe Jackson gone from last year.
“I’m a lot more comfortable,” Pointer said. “Losing Rae and Chloe, coach said everybody had to do a little more. Get in the gym more, put up more shots. The extra work I did, getting in the gym, working on my moves and my shot is paying off.
“Being PG, you run the team, make sure everybody is in their spots. When the ball comes back my way I try to be aggressive.”
Case in point was Thursday’s victory. Fargas said it was a good sign to see her point guard get to the free-throw line 10 times.
“That’s something we hadn’t seen out of her,” Fargas said. “That’s a plus for us. She’s shooting better in conference play from the perimeter. The more games she logs, the better she’s getting. I like that she is a scoring point guard who is distributing the basketball at the right time to the right players.
“When Pointer, (Shanice) Norton and (Jaelyn) Richard-Harris are confident and playing in unison — post entries, bringing the ball down, getting into our offense — that’s when we are really good.”
It’s worth noting that the Lady Tigers are showing some improvement in one of their weak areas — free-throw shooting. Through the first 13 games, LSU was a 60.6 team from the line. In the past two games, the Lady Tigers are 39 of 50 (78 percent).
The tougher the game, the more important the free throws are. The Lady Tigers will have their hands full with South Carolina, which has won the past eight meetings. The LSU press will be tested by guards Te’a Cooper and Tyasha Harris. Cooper is the leading scorer at 11.9 points per game and Harris is third at 9.8, but their value is aggressiveness and ability to beat the press. They’ve combined for 49 steals, while Harris is averaging 4.3 assists per game.
Reserve Destan Henderson is making 40.3 percent of her 3-point attempts, and 6-foot-3 forward Alexis Jennings is averaging 9.9 points and 5.6 rebounds per game.
“Defense is always something we rely on,” Norton said. “It helps us get our offense going, especially with the guards South Carolina has. They have strong quick, athletic guards who like to push in transition. We need to pick them up full court, turn them over, set some steals, some deflections so we can get things going offensively.”