The downward spiral had already begun for the LSU women’s basketball team last season, a month before the coronavirus pandemic finished off their season.
The Lady Tigers dropped five of their last seven Southeastern Conference games after losing leading scorer and inspirational leader Ayana Mitchell was lost to a season-ending knee injury. The 7-2 conference start and promise of a deep run this season vanished before their first game in the SEC tournament.
Through the obstacles and restrictions of following the league’s COVID-19 protocols, coach Nikki Fargas and her crew will begin picking up the pieces when practice begins Wednesday.
Plenty of doubt remains about the season schedule, which will include some nonconference bubble sites to maximize the numbers of games that can safely be played. The protocols will stay in place until experts deem the country has attained some semblance of control over the pandemic.
But Fargas is highly confident about how her team has handled the transition to a new season. A strong returning nucleus with added depth and a strong mindset through the constant barriers gives her optimism.
“I don’t think you can flush what the kids went through,” Fargas said. “It’s a way to understand the reality of the world we live in, also how precious it is to have time with your loved ones. We’ve utilized the isolation to bring us closer together.
“We’ve got a returning nucleus starving to play considering how the last season ended, not being able to participate in the SEC tournament. They understand there’s a sense of urgency, have done a great job getting in the weightroom and diligent in how we’ve moved them to get strength, quickness and endurance back.”
Fargas likes her team chemistry, and it wasn’t easy to get. Weekly zoom calls connected teammates who participated from the East coast to West and from France to Australia.
“It was hard to find a time for everyone; we settled on 4 p.m. which was 7 a.m. in Australia and 11 p.m. in France,” she said.
When the players did report, they followed the rules, stayed in small bubble groups while doing weight and conditioning workouts. They used their own balls and had their own baskets to limit contact.
Fargas said it worked. She spoke excitedly of conditioning and 3-point shooting, both lacking last year. LSU finished second to last in 3-point shots attempted (294) and made (89) and lack of depth contributed to the late slide.
“We’ve got some players that can really stroke the ball,” Fargas said. “We’re shooting a higher percentage and more attempts because we’re more versatile. We have multiple players that will be comfortable taking 3s.
“We can bring in platoon subbing and keep the tempo at a high rate. We have experience coming back, players that can play multiple positions that will allow us to use different lineups. If we can get to 10 deep, that’s an ideal number. We can press and run a lot, wear out opponents by pushing tempo.”
Leading the way are point guard Khayla Pointer and post player Faustine Aifuwa, the two main starters from last year. Pointer led the team in scoring (14.8 per game) and minutes played (32.7) but seemed to wear down during the stretch. Having more support will make her more effective.
“We’re excited about her senior year and this leadership role,” Fargas said. “She’s finding her own voice. She’s also a great team player and a major factor in how our perimeter play has defensively turned the complexion of the game around.”
Aifuwa showed signs of blossoming with better endurance and more consistency. She averaged 10.9 points but her rebounding (7.9) and shot blocking (2.1) made her one of the best interior players. Fargas said she’s adding the 3-point shot to her repertoire.
“She’s one of the best post players in the country,” Fargas said. “She’s shooting 3s. She’s transformed how she attacks practices and attacks the game.”
Holdovers Awa Trasi, Jailin Cherry and Tiara Young will figure prominently in the rotation. Newcomers include 6-2 Sarah Shematsi, a junior college transfer from France, and 5-10 Australian Sharna Ayres, who sat out last season while gaining eligibility. Both are perimeter players who will bring needed outside shooting and versatility to the lineup.
“Shematsi is somebody to keep your eye on,” Fargas said. “This kid is going to be a pro. Sharna Ayres is not as quick as (former Lady Tiger) Jeanne Kenney but can stroke it.
“I feel our team chemistry is really strong. We have 10 impactful players who can play those minutes. Defense may be questionable early because of scheme but not because of heart or hustle or stamina.”