Confession: I'm a bad LSU fan. I won't even pretend to be an expert here. I don't think I've watched so much as a minute of Lady Tigers basketball before tonight. So don't expect this post to be couched in deep analysis or even to contain a good deal of contextual knowledge. What I do know is that I'm proud of what I watched.
LSU, despite hosting, entered as underdogs against a West Virginia squad that closed out with a school record 30 wins this season. It was an ugly season for the Lady Tigers, who finished 10th in the SEC, but have scratched and clawed their way to the Sweet 16 after finishing with a losing conference record. In the opening round of the national tournament, LSU thumped Georgia Tech, scoring a school record 98 points, lead by 20+ point efforts from Danielle Ballard and Theresa Plaisance.
Last night would run much less smoothly. The Lady Tigers pounced early, opening a 10-3 lead before WVU called a T.O. to settle in. WVU mounted a steady comeback in the 1st, which culminated in them taking the lead after a three from Christal Caldwell with six minutes remaining in the half. The two teams traded blows for the final minutes, with LSU's Danielle Ballard closing strong with a jumper to give the Lady Tigers a 37-35 half time lead.
Yet, the already thin roster suffered another blow as Senior guard Jeanne Kenney left with an undisclosed injury (suspected concussion). To make matters worse, stud post Shanece McKinney tallied three first half fouls. It would take a gritty, gutsy performance to close out against a more talented, veteran team, even within the confines of the PMAC.
Much like the beginning of the game, LSU opened the 2nd half like a house of fire, going on a 7-0 run over the first two minutes. WVU finally put together some offense, but the Lady Tigers answered each time. At 16:00 Rina Hill hit a jumper to put the lead back at seven, 48-41. Unfortunately, Shanece McKinney picked up a quick foul shortly thereafter. And then things began to unravel.
The Lady Tigers went scoreless for three minutes, allowing WVU to tie it up. Ballard broke the tie with a jumper, but they quickly gave it back after a Plaisance foul. It would be the only two points LSU would score for another 3+ minute spell. In that span the WVU lead crept to as much as 6.
LSU found most of it's offensive success on the back of Ballard aggressively driving to the rack and creating. There was little offensive rhythm and no movement to speak of most of the night. It was all Danielle Ballard everything, which brought out some good and a lot of bad. WVU adjusted, shifting to a stingy 2-3 zone that capitalized on their size advantage, with Plaisance and McKinney on the pine due to fouls.
Once WVU shifted to the zone, the LSU offense went kaput. Ballard couldn't find any room in the lane and no other player stepped up to make shots and stretch the zone. After battling hard for 35 minutes, it looked like the Tigers were slowly, but surely being bled to death. At the 5:00 mark they trailed by 7, playing with little depth and Plaisance and McKinney playing handcuffed with four fouls each. They would yield only two more meaningful points while scoring 20 of their own.
It's hard to describe exactly what happened. It wasn't a pretty thing to watch, but it was terribly compelling. It was guts and grit and toughness and sheer want. 5'6" guards were beating 6'0+ posts for rebounds to keep possessions alive. Shots weren't falling, but the numbers games eventually played in their favor: shoot enough of them and some will fall. Under 3:00 minutes to left they cut the lead to three and McKinney came through with an aggressive and heroic rebound and putback that could have very well put her out, but instead cut the deficit to one. The PMAC exploded. Caldwell called time.
The final 2:40 consisted of some combination of LSU dominating and WVU imploding. The Mountaineers looked lost on offense with a dazzling array of befuddling turnovers and poor shot choices, all of which was aided by a scrappy Lady Tiger defense that sunk back in the zone that gave them so much success early in the game. Soon LSU's offense began converting possession's to points, rapidly. One trip down, freshman Jasmine Rhodes fearlessly drove to the lane and laid one in to give LSU the lead.
The McKinney rebound and put back and Rhodes drive and layup perhaps best encapsulated the evening. Backs against the wall, on the brink of elimination, in what could be the final game for a handful of these players, they stood up to the challenge, embraced the struggle and won the game. It was a bold, courageous effort. One that showed me that I made a mistake not watching this team even once all year. Despite a poor shooting night from Ballard, an injury to Kenney and foul issues for McKinney and Plaisance, the Lady Tigers got the job done by playing with a higher effort level and by shooting a silky 90.9% from the stripe, including making their final eight attempts.
There's obviously issues with this team. They are thin. Interior force Derreyal Youngblood won't play in the tournament due to suspension. Jeanne Kenney's injury may put a further dent into the rotation. If I'm being truthful, I don't know how good they are, and I don't know how good their next opponent, Louisville, is. But I also don't really care. Because once you show me your guts, I'll root for you forever.
Congrats, Lady Tigers. You earned this one.