LSU opens play in SEC women’s basketball tournament Thursday vs. Mississippi State

LSU's Jailin Cherry (1) plays defense in last week's home loss to Mississippi State. The Tigers play the Bulldogs again Thursday in the SEC tournament. PHOTO BY REBECCA WARREN

For the second time in a week, LSU’s women’s basketball team will get another opportunity against Mississippi State more than 650 miles away in a game from the last time they met with far greater ramifications.

If LSU (8-12) is to hold out any faint hope of reaching the NCAA tournament for the seventh time under coach Nikki Fargas, the eighth-seeded Tigers find themselves in a must-win scenario against ninth-seeded Mississippi State (10-8) in the first-round game at 10 a.m. CT Thursday in the Southeastern Conference Tournament in Greenville, S.C.

The game will be televised by the SEC Network and broadcast locally by 107.3-FM.

The Tigers look to avenge last Thursday’s 68-59 home loss to the Bulldogs as if their season depends on it, the result of a five-game losing streak that’s severely clouded their NCAA postseason hopes.

“We’re right there in turning the corner and those games could have gone either way and it does put a little more pressure on you,” LSU women’s basketball coach Nikki Fargas, whose team went 7-9 in games determined by 10 points or less. “You’ve got to go into that game with Mississippi State and win that game and that game should determine the eight teams that go into NCAA.”

The Tigers were halfway to that objective at home a week ago, leading the Bulldogs 33-25 at halftime and were promptly outscored 25-8 in the third quarter and 43-26 in the second half to put themselves in further jeopardy of at worst, not qualifying for an at-large berth.

A year ago with a 20-10 record, LSU appeared headed for an at-large berth when the NCAA cancelled its postseason tournament amid the coronavirus pandemic.

This season, LSU’s 1-4 start doomed the Tigers to attempting to dig past .500 all year. They got their once on Jan. 31 with an 75-66 overtime win over Ole Miss in Baton Rouge.

The victory pushed LSU’s record to 8-7 overall and 6-3 in the SEC, but since then the Tigers have lost five straight SEC games. In four of those losses, LSU had one quarter in which in scored in single-digits and in the fifth loss scored 12 points but got outscored by 10.

“All I can say is y’all are guaranteed 40 minutes,” Fargas said of her team. “After that, we don’t know. What we will focus in on is being the hardest working, the most disciplined team on Thursday and really staying glued to playing scouting report defense, staying glued to playing together offensively.”

The NCAA announced in January that it was lifting the restriction of teams needing a winning record to be eligible for its postseason tournament.

LSU hasn’t won at least two games in the SEC tournament since Fargas’ first season in 2011-12. The Tigers have only twice won the SEC tournament, the last time under coach Sue Gunter in 2003.

Fargas believes a victory over Mississippi State would help put her team one step closer to at least an at-large berth based on the NCAA’s selection committee’s penchant for choosing teams that finish in the top eight of the SEC’s regular season or with .500 or better conference records.

The Tigers are the eighth-seeded team going into the conference tournament but were 6-8 in league play taking into account they split games with Ole Miss and Texas A&M with Fargas sidelined by contact tracing. They also weren’t able to get their full complement of league games because of COVID-19 related issues involving Kentucky and Vanderbilt.

“This game on Thursday should determine the team that is the eighth team to go into the NCAA tournament,” Fargas said.

Another win would help boost LSU’s resume’ that has several metrics working in the Tigers’ favor – a No. 2 strength of schedule that includes two wins over ranked teams, highlighted by a 65-61 overtime triumph Jan. 18 over SEC regular season champion Texas A&M.

By comparison State, which has one win over a ranked team in Georgia but has a better NET rating of No. 45 compared to LSU’s No. 65. Of the 13 SEC women’s teams playing this season (Vanderbilt decided not to play because of COVID-19), LSU’s NET rating is 12th only ahead of Auburn.

In the latest bracket projection by ESPN’s Charlie Crème, the Bulldogs were among his eight teams from the SEC to make it into the 64-team field that will be unveiled March 15.

“Things are stacked against us, we understand that,” Fargas said. “It doesn’t mean they have to stay stacked against us.”

LSU appeared to be in control of last week’s contest, extending its halftime lead, to 38-28 on a-pointer from Khayla Pointer with 8:28 in the third quarter.

However, the Tigers made only 3 of 13 shots (23.1%) and turned the ball seven times.

Conversely, after making just 1 of 10 3-pointers in the first half, MSU was 3 of 5 from behind the arc in the third quarter when it outscored LSU 25-8.

State took a 50-41 lead into fourth quarter – a margin they were able to maintain (54-45) with 7:14 remaining – when LSU reserve guard Ryann Payne rallied her team with eight points, pulling her team to within 58-54 with 2:18 remaining but the Tigers were unable to avoid their eighth consecutive loss to the Bulldogs.

Pointer led LSU with 17 and Awa Trasi 16, while center Faustine Aifuwa struggled from the field on 3 of 12 shooting and finished with 7 points and 10 rebounds.

The Tigers also didn’t get any points from sophomore guard Tiara Young, who went scoreless in nine minutes in her return from an ankle injury.

Fargas said she anticipates being able to start senior guard Jailyn Cherry, who has been “banged up”, but like Young, is expected to benefit from the additional time off since the Tigers final scheduled game with Vanderbilt last Sunday was previously cancelled.

“We want to make sure we’re South Carolina for as long as we can possibly be there,” Fargas said. “We’re not trying to go there to be one and done.”

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