BATON ROUGE -- Minutes after LSU’s heartbreaking, buzzer-beating loss to rival Tennessee in the Maravich Center on Feb. 7, junior guard Jeanne Kenney poured her heart and soul into a riveting speech in the locker room.
With LSU having lost three of its last four games and sitting at 4-6 in Southeastern Conference play, Kenney exclaimed “Our seniors aren’t going to go out like this. They deserve to be playing on their home floor in March and they will.”
It was a rallying cry for a group of nine players at the time. Under the guidance of second-year head coach Nikki Caldwell, her staff and those nine committed players, the Lady Tigers put together a late-season surge that will be remembered as one of the greatest finishes in school history.
Losing five seniors the previous year and faced with tremendous adversity to injuries and a brutal schedule, it could have been easy and understandable for LSU to go .500 the rest of the way. But that’s not Caldwell, her staff and her team.
There’s competitiveness – no matter what the odds might be – that drives her and her players every day they take the floor. She expects greatness from them and that is what she got as LSU went on a seven-game winning streak, reached the NCAA Tournament and then its first Sweet 16 since 2008.
Playing its third top-15 ranked team in eight days, the streak began against No. 9 Georgia just 48 hours after the heartbreaking loss to the Lady Vols. The Lady Tigers dominated the Lady Bulldogs, 71-53, proving the Tennessee loss was behind them. Following its second win in a row at Mississippi State, LSU was faced with more adversity when it learned that sophomore forward Sheila Boykin was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre syndrome. She missed the remainder of the season.
Would eight players be enough to play in March? The team developed the motto “Eight is Enough,” and it was said every time they took the floor, came out of a timeout or a session in practice. Snowed in at Columbia, Mo., LSU played a road game at Missouri on a Friday afternoon, defeated the Tigers then faced the daunting task of beating an up-tempo Kentucky team in less than 48 hours in Baton Rouge.
Kenney, grieving after the loss of her late grandfather just days before and questionable to play with a foot injury, left the Maravich Center faithful with a memory they wouldn’t soon forget. Kenney fired in a career-high 22 points, buried 5-of-5 threes and LSU beat a Kentucky team 77-72 that blasted Texas A&M in College Station six days prior.
Kentucky got nearly a week of rest prior to that game, while a short-handed LSU team had played that Friday. Again, Caldwell kept her team focused no matter what the adversity that was dealt to them.
On March 3, the group of eight took the program to another level, dominating No. 14 Texas A&M in College Station for its first win on the road over a ranked SEC team since upsetting No. 1 Tennessee in Knoxville in 2008. All eight players contributed in the inspiring win. Seniors Adrienne Webb and Bianca Lutley were playing at the highest levels of their careers.
Following an NCAA first round win over Green Bay where the Lady Tigers snapped the Phoenix’ 24-game winning streak, LSU learned it was going to be without the services of Kenney against a Penn State team in the second round that ended the team’s season last year. National media did not give the Lady Tigers a chance against a balanced Lady Lion team led by Big Ten Player of the Year Maggie Lucas.
It was the perfect scenario for Caldwell and LSU -- backs against the wall, playing without its leader in Kenney and a Penn State team confident it would end LSU’s season again. Caldwell took the “magnificent seven” to another level and what resulted was one of the greatest victories in school history.
Webb and Lutley, playing their final home games, combined for 47 points as LSU celebrated its 13th all-time Sweet 16 appearance with a thrilling 71-66 win over Penn State. This was the kind of scene you envisioned when Caldwell made her introductory speech in April 2011 – an LSU team celebrating at midcourt and a raucous crowd in pandemonium after a signature victory.
As LSU left the floor, including Webb for the final time, she found Kenney in the tunnel who couldn’t stay away from the Maravich Center. “We did it,” Webb exclaimed. Caldwell, trying to catch her breath in the locker room, then told the team “oh my goodness, I am so proud of you. We have come a long, long way. We could have folded, but you didn’t because you believed.”
Though LSU would see its season end in the regional semifinal to Cal days later, the indelible images of that night in the Maravich Center and a season once at a crossroads in early February will not soon be forgotten. For the fans, it was a celebration that let out previous years of frustration wondering if their team would be relevant again.
For a team that had gone through so much, eight was enough to create memories that would last a lifetime. Every single player on the roster had improved their game from the previous year. Caldwell and her staff did a fantastic job in making them believe in each other as they became a tight-knit group poised for a magical March.
Webb and Lutley finished with the best season of their careers. The momentum has been established for an off-season of an excitement. Bolstered by a top-20 recruiting class and the return of six players from this team, expectations will be high in the third year of the Caldwell era.
Just two years removed from missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 12 seasons, Caldwell has LSU back on the map nationally. It’s just like she envisioned in her introductory press conference. Next November can’t get here soon enough.
What the 2012-13 LSU Lady Tigers Accomplished …
Won 22 games overall, the second straight year under Nikki Caldwell the team has done so and the 23rd time in program history
Recorded six wins against ranked teams, the most by LSU since the 2008 Final Four season
Defended its home court, compiling a 15-3 home record and a five-game winning streak to close the season. Four of those five final wins came against Top 20 teams
The 15 home wins were the second-most in school history and the most since the 2005-06 team claimed 15 home victories
Reached the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2008 and did so by beating two ranked teams in the first two NCAA rounds
Will be ranked in both the Associated Press and Coaches polls to end the season for the first time since 2008 when they are announced on Wednesday, April 10
Produced its highest scoring offense (69.0 ppg) since the 2007-08 squad posted 69.2 points per game … Was the second-highest scoring average by LSU in the past seven seasons
Senior guard Adrienne Webb was named second-team All-SEC and finished 17th in LSU career scoring (1,370 points), fourth in LSU career threes made (168) and eighth in LSU career games played (129). Webb closed her career with seven straight double-figure scoring games and was the Lady Tigers’ leading scorer in the NCAA Tournament with 19.7 points per game. Her 29 points against Penn State in the NCAA second round were the most by an LSU player in an NCAA Tournament game since Seimone Augustus had 29 as a freshman in the 2004 NCAA regional final against Georgia.
Theresa Plaisance was named to the All-SEC first team and SEC All-Defensive Team, going from 4.5 points per game a sophomore to an SEC-best 17.0 points per game as a junior. Plaisance finished the year in the top-20 nationally in blocks with 101, which was also fourth in LSU single-season annals. She became LSU’s first SEC scoring champion since Seimone Augustus in 2006 and she was the only player in the SEC to rank in the top 10 of all of these categories: scoring, rebounding, field goal percentage, blocks and free throw percentage.
Danielle Ballard shattered the LSU single-season record for steals with 100 and finished second nationally among all freshmen in the category. In only her first season, she became the first LSU basketball player – men or women – to record 100 steals in a season.
Senior Bianca Lutley went from averaging 5.0 points per game her three previous seasons to putting up 10.2 points per game in her final year. Lutley reached double-figures 18 times.