LSU’s Ryann Payne spent most of her junior season waiting on a prayer.
Payne, a TCU transfer, was mostly on the bench recovering from shoulder surgery she believed would prohibit her from playing at all. Finally, through diligence in her rehabilitation process, she made her season debut Feb. 14.
Thursday in No. 8 seed LSU’s second-round SEC tournament game against No. 9 seed Mississippi State, the junior guard scored a career-high 17 points in 26 minutes off the bench to lead the Tigers to a 71-62 victory.
“I didn’t think I was going to get cleared for this season,” said Payne, who had 12 points in the first half. “I’m humbled and more than grateful to be back toward the end, to get a couple of licks in the SEC and just help my teammates in any way I can. For the most part of the season, I was rehabbing, trying to get my back. I’m just grateful that I’m back this early.”
So was LSU coach Nikki Fargas, whose 9-12 team broke a five-game losing streak and advanced to Friday’s quarterfinals for a 10 a.m. CT game vs. No. 2 ranked and SEC regular season champion Texas A&M (22-1) at the Bon Secours Wellness Arena in Greenville, S.C.
“She just kept working out, she kept saying she wanted to get this experience,” Fargas said of Payne. “I’m thinking, `If you can go, it’s going to be more than experience that we’re going to need from you. We’re going to need you to help us win.’”
Payne was part of a group of reserves that produced a season-high 34 points, including junior Sarah Shematsi scoring 13 points by hitting 4 of 6 3-pointers.
First team All-SEC guard Khayla Pointer added 13 points, typifying her team’s balance. Forward Faustine Aifuwa added 9 points and game-high 12 rebounds while forward Awa Trasi had 8 points.
“I like that we had players step up,” Fargas said. “That’s what you need during this time of the season. You have to have players coming in and making plays. We had several players make big plays for us.”
The Tigers didn’t have to think back long to a regular-season finale 68-59 home loss last Thursday to the Bulldogs. LSU built a 33-25 halftime lead before Mississippi State outscored the Tigers 25-8 in the third quarter and 43-26 in the second half.
LSU found themselves in a similar situation on Thursday, taking the lead for good on five straight points from Payne to begin the second quarter, and leading 33-29 at halftime.
This time, the Tigers never waned.
“We wanted to take the mistakes that we made in our previous game and make sure they didn’t happen again,” Fargas said. “We just talked about being that team that becomes that 40-minute team. We’ve been that team that’s played 30, 32 minutes and I’m so proud of this group. They stayed focused. They stayed locked in on what we needed to do.”
State got as close as 33-31 in the first minute of third quarter. But LSU responded with a 9-4 run in which Shematsi contributed a 3-pointer and picked up a steal and assisted Pointer on a fast break layup for a 44-35 lead at the 3:34 mark.
LSU handled the third quarter with aplomb, outscoring State 20-14. Shematsi hit a 3-pointer and Pointer swished a pair of free throws in the last minute of play to take a 53-43 lead into the fourth period.
The Tigers flourished from behind the 3-point arc with 6 of 14 shooting for 42.9%, their most made 3-pointers since they made 8 on Dec. 4 against Central Florida. They also converted 73% (19 of 26) of their free throw attempts, helping to maintain a fourth-quarter lead that ranged from a high of 13 points (65-52) on a pair of free throws from Tiara Young to nine points by game’s end.
“We weren’t disciplined letting them (LSU) get to the free throw line,” Mississippi State head coach Nikki McCray-Penso said. “We fouled them too much. They hit some threes. I told our team that everybody at this tournament wants to win. It’s not just about wanting to win. You have to do the things that it’s going to take to win. We just lost it from that standpoint.”
LSU, which shot 42.6 % (23 of 54) from the field, reached the 70-point barrier for only the third time this year when Pointer picked up one of her four steals and found Trasi for a layup with 1:05 to go.
Payne, who averaged 4.7 points coming into the game, explained the difference in her team’s ability to finish the job this time against State, which had previously defeated LSU nine straight times dating to 2015.
“This game we made sure we were up at the half and we were keeping our foot on the gas, Payne said. “We’re not letting up. I think we made that a goal of ours, to continue to push on the gas, make sure that we keep our foot on their necks and not let them come back.”
Now, it’s on to Texas A&M for the Tigers, who handed the Aggies their lone loss this season in a 65-61 overtime victory on Jan. 14 in Baton Rouge.
Since then, A&M has won 10 straight games including 54-41 revenge win over LSU on Feb. 4 in College Station.
In that victory, the Tigers led 27-21 at halftime and exited the third quarter trailing 39-37 when A&M’s Aaliyah Wilson hit a 3-point shot just before the period-ending buzzer.
Unfortunately, Wilson’s 3 was the start of 13-0 run as LSU went 1 for 11 from the field (missing its first 10 shots) in the fourth quarter and was outscored 15-4 by A&M.