LSU women, with more talent and depth, eager to open 2020-21 basketball season

LSU senior center Faustine Aifuwa has added a 3-point shot to her offensive arsenal.

The only 3-point shot of Faustine Aifuwa’s career resulted in a miss last season.

The 6-foot-5 senior center has established solid credentials for shooting a high field goal percentage during her career – a .459 norm – the product of being successful from either point-blank range to the mid-range area.

LSU women’s basketball coach Nikki Fargas is adding another layer to prepare Aifuwa for the professional level, giving Aifuwa the license to shoot from deep. It’s a new element of an expected improved 3-point shooting team effort that debuts when the Tigers open the 2020-21 season in the South Point Thanksgiving Shootout Nov. 27-28 in Las Vegas.

“I know a lot of people are going to say, ‘you gave Faustine Aifuwa the green light’?,” Fargas said Thursday during a news conference. “Yes, I have. She’s worked extremely hard at coming down in that trail spot and knocking down the 3. We do shooting drills every day where our bigs are supposed to shoot the 3. They’re held accountable for the number of 3s they have to make.”

When LSU opens its season against Brigham Young and West Virginia in consecutive days at the South Point Arena, it will mark the 10th season at LSU for Fargas (168-116) who looks to return the Tigers to the NCAA Tournament.

LSU (20-10) appeared headed for postseason play as an at-large team last season when the NCAA Tournament was cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic.

In an effort to enjoy a full season and beyond into the postseason, the Tigers have proceeded with extreme caution in a COVID-19 world.

The majority of players went home for the summer and tried to work out on their own. They returned to campus in June for voluntary workouts, which consisted of small groups from on-court work to the weight room.

Once the team reached the stage of preseason workouts, they’ve submitted to coronavirus testing three times a week and have remained in two separate groups in the weight room.

“I think we’re all very happy to even play,” LSU senior point guard Khayla Pointer said. “Cases are still rising; we’re still in the middle of pandemic. Those things do worry us but hey, we’re going to be as safe as we can. We do want to compete. We do want to play. If these are the chances we take, we just want to try and stay safe while we do it.”

Fargas drew a parallel between her first team at LSU, which finished fourth in the SEC and reached the second round of the NCAA, and this year’s group which is bolstered by the return of six seniors.

The Tigers’ nucleus is complemented this season by the arrival of a talented freshman class and the nation’s No. 1 junior college player in Sarah Shematsi.

“I feel like this year we have a nucleus that’s ready to go and experienced,” Fargas said. “That led to us going to back-to-back Sweet 16s (2012-13, ’13-’14) and I really feel like this group is capable.

“We have the tools, we have the experience, we have the youth, we have the depth. Our goal is to go undefeated in non-conference play. You obviously want to finish at the top of the SEC. The top four get that bye in the SEC Tournament. Anytime you’re top four, top five in our league, you should be nationally ranked which will give you better seeding.”

LSU will play six non-conference games and begin a 16-game SEC schedule Dec. 31 by hosting Auburn. This year’s SEC postseason tournament (March 3-7) will be in Greenville, S.C.

Pointer and Aifuwa are two of LSU’s three returning starters along with senior guard Jalin Cherry, who became a starter late last season after leading scorer/rebounder Ayana Mitchell sustained a season-ending knee injury.

Pointer, a preseason All-SEC first team selection, is the team’s leading returning scorer at 14.8 points and assists leader at 4.7. She also averaged 4.0 rebounds and collected 62 steals.

Aifuwa averaged 10.9 points and a career-high 7.9 rebounds to go with 63 blocked shots and 46 percent shooting from the field. She was voted the team’s co-Most Improved Player and Defensive Player of the Year last season.

“Our goals have not changed,” Pointer said. “Winning an SEC championship has been one I’ve wanted since I’ve been here since my freshman year. Making it to the (NCAA) tournament and going far in the tournament.”

One of the hallmarks of this year’s team will be improved depth in which possibly 10 players could have a playing role, Fargas said.

Senior forward Awa Trasi started in the nine games last season and averaged 6.5 points and 3.7 rebounds. She led the team in 3-point shooting (27 of 73) at 37 percent where she’s to combine with Pointer and Shematsi to give the Tigers an edge there this season.

LSU looks forward to additional production and maturity from sophomore guards Tiara Young and Domonique Davis, both of whom are capable of providing depth behind Pointer at point guard, Freshmen forwards Treasure Thompson and Ajae Petty bring plenty of potential and are expected to combine with Aifuwa to give the Tigers a formidable frontcourt.

“We have 17 players, there’s so much energy at practice,” Pointer said. “We have a lot of depth. We have a lot of players that can do a lot of things. We have so many weapons this year. I’m excited to see how we’re going to look this year.”

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