Pressure on the rise for Lady Tigers _lowres

Advocate staff photo by HILARY SCHEINUK -- LSU coach Nikki Caldwell says Thursday night's game against Georgia in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center 'has NCAA ramifications and SEC tournament seeding ramifications as well.'

The games are dwindling, but the pressure is ramping up.

Four regular season contests remain for the LSU women’s basketball team, all of them pivotal, starting with Thursday night’s home game against Georgia.

At 14-10 overall and 8-4 in Southeastern Conference play, LSU finds itself squarely on the NCAA tournament bubble. ESPN women’s basketball analyst Charlie Crème on Tuesday rated the Lady Tigers as a No. 11 NCAA tournament seed but rated LSU as one of the last four at-large teams in the field of 64.

For Georgia, Thursday’s 7 p.m. game on SEC Network+ could be just as pivotal.

The Lady Bulldogs (17-8, 5-7 SEC) are still projected in the NCAA field according to Crème and ranked No. 48 according to the NCAA’s RPI.

But Georgia has dropped five straight games, four of them since losing leading scorer Shacobia Barbee to a season-ending broken leg in January.

The Lady Bulldogs, suffering through just their second five-game losing streak since 1979, have failed to score more than 48 points in their past three games. That includes a 51-48 home loss last time out to scuffling Florida one week ago.

Despite Georgia’s struggles, the Lady Bulldogs will get no sympathy from LSU. The Lady Tigers have fought back from a 6-6 nonconference start to the season that contributed to a No. 66 RPI that still endangers LSU’s NCAA hopes.

“The game against Georgia has NCAA ramifications and SEC tournament seeding ramifications as well,” LSU coach Nikki Caldwell said. “We have to be aggressive. We have to play Georgia as though we’re playing in the Elite Eight. That puts you in the mind frame of playing in the NCAA tournament where it’s one and done.”

South Carolina and Tennessee, both 12-0 in SEC play, will decide the regular-season title between themselves, though the Lady Volunteers will be hampered after losing top player Isabelle Harrison to a season-ending knee injury.

There is still plenty for the Lady Tigers to play for, however. LSU is in a log jam of four teams fighting for the other two top four seeds in the SEC tournament. Mississippi State is 9-4; while the Lady Tigers, Kentucky and Texas A&M are 8-4.

LSU beat State and Kentucky and has a loss to A&M with one left to play at home on March 1 in the regular-season finale.

Being a top-four SEC seed means a double bye in the conference tournament and is an important benchmark NCAA-wise.

Since the SEC went to its current tournament seeding format in 1986, only two top-four seeds have failed to earn NCAA tournament bids: Kentucky in 2008 and Georgia in 1992.

“That’s always where we want to go, and that’s our focus and end goal,” LSU junior Anne Pedersen said. “But without the next game, we can’t even think about it.”

And despite Georgia’s recent struggles, Pedersen said the Lady Tigers still have a healthy respect for the Lady Bulldogs.

“Georgia’s been struggling in the SEC, but that doesn’t take away from what they are,” she said. “They always have big, physical guards, so it’s going to be a challenge. We’ll have to match up and make sure they don’t (capitalize) on their strength.”

Tiaria Griffin, a 5-foot-7 junior guard, is Georgia’s only active player in double figures with 11.2 points per game. Krista Donald, a 5-11 senior forward, averages 8.4 points and a team-high 6.7 rebounds.

Junior guard Danielle Ballard leads LSU with 14 points per game and is the only SEC player ranked in the top 15 in four major statistical categories (points, rebounds, assists and steals). Ballard averages 6.8 rebounds per game, 2.9 assists per game and leads the conference with 3.5 steals per contest.

Sophomore guard Raigyne Moncrief averages 11.3 points per game, while DaShawn Harden averages 10.1 points off the bench and is fourth in the SEC with 2.2 steals per contest.

LSU will wear pink uniforms Thursday for breast cancer awareness. After Georgia, LSU plays Sunday at Arkansas and Feb. 26 at Ole Miss before wrapping up at home against A&M.

Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.