LSU women’s basketball coach Nikki Fargas knew it might take a few weeks but she’s breathing easier these days. So is junior forward Ayana Mitchell.
After relying almost too heavily on Mitchell in the early going, the Lady Tigers (10-6, 1-1 in SEC play) have won six of their last eight games going into Thursday's SEC road game at Ole Miss (6-10, 0-2), which tips off at 6 p.m. on SEC Network Plus.
The key has been a boost in individual play as a young team with one senior has bonded. Mitchell was reliable with five double-doubles in the first six games but the pressure is off with fellow starters upping their game and the bench providing more support.
“I feel a lot better, more under control,” said Mitchell, averaging 13.4 points and 10.1 rebounds per game. “I don’t feel any pressure. I’m playing calm and doing my role.
“You can’t pick one person on our team to X-out, especially starters. Mercedes (Brooks) and Karli (Seay) coming off the bench, (opponents) have to worry about all those people. Khayla (Pointer) has stepped up and Faustine (Aifuwa) works the board and soft touch around the rim.”
Fargas expected the scenario after losing her two top scorers, Raigyne Louis (graduated) and Chloe Jackson (transferred). Each started all 29 games and took more than half of all the team’s shots last season.
“In a late game you went with those two; they logged 30 plus minutes,” Fargas said. “We felt we’d have a more experienced front court.
“I knew (Khayla) Pointer was going to come along. I’m really pleased with how solid (Shanice) Norton has been as our only senior. When I asked how many had been to Athens (Ga.) two hands went up — Ayana and Shanice. That’s how youthful we are. As we continue to play, we’ll only get better.”
Said Norton: “It’s our bond as a team that has grown a lot. Like, Ayana knows I like my shot from the corner. If she doesn’t have her look, she’s going to look for me. KP when she penetrates is looking to dish off. Knowing each other’s strength has really helped us.”
Mitchell hasn’t gone backwards. She’s had double-doubles the last two times out, including Sunday’s 63-52 victory over No. 21 Texas A&M with 10 points and 14 rebounds. But Pointer scored one off her career high with 22 points and Jaelyn Richard-Harris had 11.
The Lady Tigers showed some maturity by scoring the last 12 points of the game to finish strong, and hit 18 of 22 free throws, which has been their weak point all season.
Brooks has given a boost to the bench with her 3-point shooting. She averaged 2.8 points per game in the first six games but is averaging nine in the last seven. Aifuwa is giving Mitchell some help on the boards with 8.9 per game after averaging four in her first five outings.
Pointer has been a key. Fargas said she struggled early in the season after her father died in November but is playing more consistently to set the tone with her press defense and ability to penetrate. She’s averaging 12.6 points and 4.3 assists per game.
“We definitely wanted Ayana to set the tone, but other players needed to share in that responsibility,” Fargas said. “Pointer needed to be a spark for us at the beginning of the game. When she plays aggressively off the bounce, good things happen for us.”
LSU’s game comes out of its defense and rebounding. The Lady Tigers are No. 1 in the SEC and No. 8 in the nation in points allowed per game (52.1) and has a plus 7.1 rebound margin.
The Lady Rebels are led by guard Crystal Allen, who is averaging 18.3 points per game and shooting 37.9 from 3-point range. Forward Shandrick Sessom averaged 9.7 points and a team high 5.7 rebounds.
“Ole Miss has a couple of guard who can really stretch you from the 3-point line,” Fargas said. “We have to be aware of where they are all the time. We’ll try to ramp up the defense and turn them over. Press and get after them with our matchup defense.”