The LSU women’s basketball team had a chance to take a deep breath with a bye on Sunday. The timing was good considering what’s in front of the Lady Tigers down the stretch.
At 5-5 in SEC play and tied with Georgia for seventh in the league standings, it’s time for LSU to make a final push for the NCAA Tournament with six games remaining, four of those on the road.
The push starts Thursday with a trip to No. 22 Texas A&M in College Station. Tipoff is 6:30 p.m. and the game will be broadcast on the SEC Network.
“We came back from the break and had a great practice, an intense practice,” senior guard Shanice Norton said. “We need to keep that going.”
LSU (14-8 overall) is riding a two-game win streak and in position to control its destiny. The Lady Tigers hold a 56 RPI ranking and the 29th toughest strength of schedule. ESPN bracketologist Charlie Crème has LSU as a No. 12 seed against a No. 5-seed Arizona State at Ames, Iowa.
LSU coach Nikki Fargas would like to see her team maintain its focus and momentum after a stretch of four losses in five games prior to the last two wins. A strong finish would at least keep LSU in the SEC’s top 10 and provide a bye in the first round of the conference tournament. A top four and the double-bye looks unlikely.
“This is a long stretch with two straight road games,” she said. “We have been challenged with that in a while. We can’t take another day off until Monday of next week.
“They’re so locked in. We addressed SEC before SEC schedule started. Now the focus is one game at a time. They know what finishing in the top four means, they know 8-8 is the magic number. We’ve talked about that. We’ve talked about being road warriors and stealing games on the road. Want to keep noise and distractions out.”
Texas A&M (18-5, 7-3) is a good place to start for a final push. LSU beat A&M Jan. 6 in Baton Rouge, 63-52, by scoring the final 12 points of the game. But the Aggies won their next seven after that before dropping a 70-65 overtime game at Missouri Sunday.
LSU follows the A&M game with games against league cellar dwellers Vanderbilt in Nashville and Florida at home.
“We’re in a good spot,” Fargas said. “We’ve played a competitive schedule. We’ve just got to finish this stretch and win.”
LSU will be challenged by one of the league’s top players, Chennedy Carter, who is averaging 22.2 points per game who leads her team in assists (71) and steals (30). Carter had 20, but Fargas said the key was making her work for it. LSU held the Aggies 17 points under their season scoring average of 69.2.
“When she’s on she’s pretty hard to stop,” Fargas said. “You lock in as best as you can, try to disrupt her. You can’t allow the other players to have a big night.”
The Aggies frontcourt of Ciera Johnson and N’dea Jones combined for an average of 19 points and 19.5 rebounds per game. LSU’s offense is built around forwards Ayana Mitchell and Faustine Aifuwa, who average 21.8 points and 15.5 rebounds in tandem.
“Mitchell and Aifuwa, we’ve been going to them a lot and our guards have been focused on getting them the basketball,” Fargas said. “Playing together like that is why we’ve been able to position ourselves with these last two wins. We’re unified.”
Sophomore forward Rakell Spencer is done for the season and suffering a torn ACL in LSU’s victory against Arkansas last week. Spencer will undergo surgery, possibly within the next two weeks, Fargas said.
Spencer had recently moved into the starting lineup, making her third career start in the Arkansas game. She played in 20 games overall averaging 1.1 points and seven minutes.
A New Orleans native who played at Cabrini, Spencer transferred to LSU from Texas A&M. LSU coach Nikki Fargas said her absence will be made up with a combination of Jaelyn Richard-Harris, Karli Seay and Mercedes Brooks.
“She’s been such a bright spot for us of late,” Fargas said. “It’s sad when that happens.”
Junkanoo Jam bound
LSU will make its first appearance in the 2019 Junkanoo Jam basketball tournament in the Bahamas early next season. Joining LSU in the tournament scheduled Nov. 27-Dec. 1 will be Vanderbilt, Kansas State, Michigan State, Memphis, Seton Hall, Georgia Tech and Rutgers.