Nikki Caldwell declared a practical edict during a cool down period in the locker room after the Lady Tigers toppled third-seeded Penn State in the second round of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament.
“We were going to enjoy the win last night,” the LSU coach said. “Then at 12:01, you need to move on from it.”
Laying down a rule and enforcing it, though, is another matter entirely, and the sixth-seeded Lady Tigers (22-11) didn’t necessarily pay heed after leaving the Pete Maravich Assembly Center in the wake of earning a match-up with No. 2 seed California (30-3) in the Spokane Regional at 10:32 p.m. Saturday on ESPN2.
Theresa Plaisance went home and watched snippets of the upset, chuckling at close-up shots from the ESPN broadcast of an LSU bench where assistant coaches and trainers outnumbered reserves in freshman Anne Pedersen and junior Shanece McKinney on the Lady Tigers’ seven-player roster.
“I honestly couldn’t fall asleep until about 3 or 4 o’clock this morning,” Plaisance said. “I was just so excited, replaying the game over and over again in my head and looking at all things we did with just seven players.”
Guard Adrienne Webb, who notched a career-high 29 points on 10-of-16 shooting, grabbed a late bite with her parents, and arrived back at her apartment and 2 a.m. but struggled to fall asleep, too. The solution? Not a sleeping pill, but ringing up McKinney to come over and chat about the game until 5 in the morning.
“As soon as the game was over, I knew I wasn’t going to sleep,” Webb said. “I was just too excited and too anxious to play the next game.”
Intertwined with the jubilation of the program’s first Sweet 16 appearance since 2008, though, is the task for Caldwell to pivot her team toward a stout test against the Pac-12 Conference co-champions, who survived blowing a 10-point lead Monday in the final minute against 10th-seeded South Florida for an 82-78 overtime victory.
The issue was that Wednesday’s schedule was potentially rife with distractions.
LSU’s charter flight didn’t depart until early Wednesday evening after the team boarded a bus to the Baton Rouge airport around 5:15 p.m. for a four-hour flight to Spokane, Wash., leaving enough time to work through an initial scout of the Golden Bears before a full-bore practice Thursday.
“It’s different,” Webb said. “It’s new, but it’s still the same as when we transfer from nonconference season to the SEC (tournament), because you don’t know who you’re playing until that last game.”
Still unresolved, too, is the status of junior guard Jeanne Kenney, who suffered a concussion in the later stages of a first-round victory Sunday against No. 11 seed Green Bay.
Kenney was not at the PMAC until she popped in for the final minutes of LSU’s victory, surprising her teammates in the hallway to the Lady Tigers locker room.
Noble as it might have been to score an upset with just a sparse roster of seven players, the presence of Kenney, a 5-8 junior guard and emotional catalyst, would certainly help against a Cal program that might have been in line for a No. 1 seed had it not been upset by UCLA in the semifinals of the Pac-12 tournament.
Similar to her stance Monday, Caldwell said Kenney, who has been cleared to travel with LSU, is day-to-day. Caldwell said LSU will be prepared to have only has reserves on hand and to have to avoid foul trouble.
“It’s going to be something our medical people will let me know,” Caldwell said. “They’re going to ease her back into things like riding a bike, then let’s get in the gym. It’s going to be a process she has to go through and clear a series of tests to get the nod.”
Yet the verdict might not be handed down by trainers until Friday or Saturday, leaving Plaisance and her comrades assuming this will be a Spartan operation at the Spokane Arena.
“That’s how I’m taking it,” Plaisance said. “We can do it with seven, but doing it with Jeanne and eight is a definite bonus. She’s an energy player. She’s that extra-effort player.”
And any added pressure is long subsided, and stark reality has set in for how LSU approaches dwindling bodies.
“With seven, everyone feels that pressure,” Plaisance said. “It’s stand up or get run over.”
Venturing into the second weekend of March Madness in the dramatic fashion carried out by LSU might also serve to stamp Caldwell’s imprint on the program in her second season after arriving from UCLA.
In what many expected to be a politely labeled season of transition, a deep tournament run with only eight players at her disposal since early February could serve as the point of demarcation between Caldwell and the flagging fortunes under former coach Van Chancellor.
However, Caldwell tried to steer the focus away from any first bullet points on her legacy toward her players.
“I hope it’s a stepping stone for a team to realize what they’re capable of,” Caldwell said. “They’ve done something special over this past weekend, and their confidence is brewing. You can tell they are believing that they can win, and they’re believing in each other.”
Practically, the Lady Tigers also keep six players in the fold for next season who will have seen heavy minutes and gained valuable seasoning, including starters in Plaisance, McKinney, Kenney, and freshman guard Danielle Ballard. That core will be joined by a recruiting class ranked No. 19 by ESPN, headlined by five-star guard Raigyne Moncrief.
“Three of our freshmen are getting quality minutes at a really critical time of the year,” Caldwell said. “They will carry that with them through the rest of the season, but, more importantly, they carry with them in the offseason. That’s when we’ll know if you really took what we did and are going to do this year and make it better for next year.”
Yet that would be the Lady Tigers getting ahead of themselves, an act Caldwell might equally want to avoid.
“I kept this win in the back of mind,” Webb said. “I let it sink in that we’re going to the Sweet 16.”