LSU coach Nikki Fargas and her players are focused on spreading the burden of replacing injured leader Ayana Mitchell amongst the entire team.
But there might be a little more of the burden being carried by junior forward Faustine Aifuwa than any other player.
Aifuwa and Mitchell gave LSU one of the nation’s best inside tandems, the place through which LSU ran its offense. Aifuwa struggled early in that solo role before coming on strong in the fourth quarter of Monday’s 66-58 victory against Missouri.
Mitchell, the team’s second leading scorer and leading rebounder is out for the season after suffering a left knee injury a week ago. Her replacement, Awa Trasi, can play the low post but is a different style of player with a perimeter game.
That left the 6-feet-5 Aifuwa to battle under the boards. She struggled with her shooting, hitting only 3 of 13 through three quarters but sank all five of her field goal attempts plus two free throws in the fourth on her way to a 19-point performance, one off her career high.
Aifuwa also matched her career high with 16 rebounds, seven on the offensive boards, and equaled her season high with four blocked shots.
“Faustine Aifuwa has always been a talented young lady, even moreso glaring this year when you losing Mitchell,” Fargas said. “She can’t hide. She needs to be the best Faustine she can be. She really changed that around in the second half.
“She had some big-time offensive rebounds for put backs. For her to get seven offensive rebounds, that’s somebody taking up the slack.”
Aifuwa has always been deferential but looked poised to step out of Mitchell’s shadow. Her early played lacked confidence but she started the fourth quarter with three consecutive baskets and scored three times on offensive rebounds.
“I know my team needs me to rebound and not just offensive but defensive,” she said. “I try to be aggressive on the block. Once my confidence goes up, no one can stop me.”
Others stepping up
With Mitchell out, LSU is using different personnel combinations and going to the bench for players who haven’t seen much action.
Rakell Spencer played for the first time since Jan. 12 and scored for the first time since Dec. 7. Spencer, a 5-10 junior from New Orleans, scored four points and had four rebounds with an assist and one a blocked shot in nine minutes. She brought energy but also struggled to stay on the court because of foul trouble.
Also contributing was freshman Tiara Young, who played 15 minutes and had two points, but played strong defense on Missouri’s top scorer Aijha Blackwell, who made 5 of 13 shots. She and Spencer are likely to be assigned to take turns guarding Tennessee’s Rennia Davis when the teams play Thursday.
LSU’s 5-2 senior guard Jaelyn Richard-Harris continues to play big. She had 14 points and four assists against Missouri, but it was her clutch free-throw shooting that stood out most. She made 8 of 8 from the line in the fourth quarter when Missouri was trying to rally. That’s especially important since LSU is one of the worst free-throw shooting teams in the conference at 58.9 percent. The Tigers made 14 of 18 overall on Monday.
Fargas said there was nothing new to report on Mitchell and that her left knee was still being evaluated. She added that no surgery has been performed or scheduled.