Don’t expect to hear the coaching axiom, “It’s not how you start; it’s how you finish” around the LSU women’s practice gym any time soon.
The Lady Tigers (11-6, 2-3 Southeastern Conference) have finished strong in each of their past two games but ended up with losses because of abysmal first quarters. LSU coach Nikki Fargas is looking to put a stop to it as her team travels to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, for a 1 p.m. Sunday matchup with Alabama (10-8, 2-3).
In losses to ranked teams South Carolina and Kentucky, LSU found itself down by 18 and 16 points in the first quarters, respectively. The Lady Tigers were never in the first game and didn’t have enough left to pull out the second despite grabbing their only lead with 5:07 left.
“I’ve seen improvement of how they fight when adversity hits,” Fargas said. “But we have to fill our tank before we set foot on the floor. You have to do that throughout the season. You still have to study basketball when you are away from it. If we can get everybody taking ownership of that, we can get more consistency.”
The problem isn’t simply defense. LSU still leads the conference in scoring defense and is third in conference games only. The problem has been inconsistency in the backcourt, where LSU’s youth has been exposed.
Shot selection and a failure to throw the ball inside has led to missed shots, which prevent LSU from using its press. Additionally, LSU’s poor transition defense has resulted in bad matchups in transition, leading to easy baskets for the opposition.
“We’re getting enough possessions and attempts but not converting,” Fargas said. “We’re not offensively in tune. It takes us a while and the first five minutes of the game are so critical.
“We spent the last couple of days on offensive execution, making sure we are playing together. We missed some opportunities to feed the post (vs. Kentucky) and get them touches. We got back into the game by playing together.”
Faustine Aifuwa had 11 of her career high 19 points on 5-of-6 shooting in the first half against Kentucky. But when LSU was trying to get the lead in the fourth quarter, she took only one shot.
Part of the problem was point guard Khayla Pointer picked up an early charging foul in the first and lost some of her aggressiveness for driving the lane. The foul trouble plus a shoulder injury limited her to 18 minutes and two shots.
Fargas said Pointer, the team’s second-leading scorer (11.9 ppg), should be good to go physically Sunday, but the coach would like to see her bring some diversity to her game.
“I want her to play with same aggressiveness in the first half as the second,” Fargas said. “She has to play more in control. (Opponents) are sliding over and trying to get her into foul trouble. Her aggressive play to the rim is as good as you can get. I would like her to mix in the pull-up jumpers.”
The news isn’t all bad. Guard Jaelyn Richard-Harris also had a career high with 14 points, hitting 4 of 6 3-point shots. She also had four assists and four steals while playing all 40 minutes, one of her best stat lines of the season. Ayana Smith overcame 1-for-7 shooting in the first half to finish with 14 points and 10 rebounds.
What Fargas needs is for the numbers to be spread out among the other players, including the reserves.
“Our guard play is a little on the youthful side,” she said. “It’s taking a little more time than I anticipated.”
Sunday would be a good place to start with LSU facing an Alabama team coming off its best victory of the season, an 86-65 win over No. 20 Tennessee. The Tide broke open a close game with a 26-point fourth quarter to hand the Lady Vols their worst loss of the season. Alabama also fought South Carolina to the end in a 62-59 road loss.
Fargas said Alabama has a good inside-out game with effective 3-point shooting. Sophomore forward Jasmine Walker leads the Tide with a 13.9 scoring average and 7.2 rebounds per game while shooting a team-best 38.3 from deep. Guard Cierra Johnson averages 13.7 points and leads the team with 51 assists.
“They are playing at a high level and showed it against two of the best teams in our conference,” Fargas said. “Their pressure turns people over. The key for us is not getting rattled when they come with their traps. We’ve got to be aggressive, and all five players have to be in attack mode when we break the pressure.”