LSU women’s basketball team back at work chasing an NCAA tourney dream

Nikki Fargas is beginning her 10th season as LSU's women's head basketball coach in 2020-21.

It’s been more than four months since the LSU women’s basketball team completed its 2019-20 season.

Without senior Ayana Mitchell, the team’s top scorer and undisputed leader who sustained a season-ending ACL injury on Feb. 2 against Texas A&M, there was uncertainty the direction the Tigers would take in the last month of their regular season..

LSU didn’t crumble. It finished with a 20-10 record, including a 7-5 mark against Top 25 ranked teams, which left the Tigers confident they would gain an at-large NCAA tournament berth.

However, because of the COVID-19 health scare, there wasn’t such an option when the NCAA cancelled its postseason tournament March 12. The unexpected ending officially closed the careers of three seniors, most notably Mitchell who was one of the SEC’s top players.

“We had it all set in our mind, we were going to have a watch party on Monday (March 16),” LSU coach Nikki Fargas. “We saw where (conference) tournaments were being cancelled and the NBA postponed its entire season. We had a staff meeting (March 12) and met with the team and told them the news that we wouldn’t be participating in postseason. That (79-49 loss to Mississippi State in SEC tournament) was our last game. It was very surreal.

“It was not only sad for Ayana who was such an instrumental part of our success over the years, then there’s the work of Jaelyn Richard-Harris, Mercedes Brooks and the other seniors. We wanted to let them know how proud we were of them, that the things we go through in life will strengthen us later and that we had to get through this.”

With a strong core of six seniors, coupled with a promising group of newcomers, LSU has pushed aside the angst of its 2019-20 ending with an eye toward 2020-21.

Fargas and her staff brought their back team for voluntary workouts in June, which included weightlifting followed by on-court work beginning July 20.

LSU began NCAA-permissible (eight hours a week) workouts in small groups, including the use of a basketball, complete with medical check points including assigned arrival times for players who had designated entry and exit points at their practice facility.

Players – four to a group – were assigned their own basketballs for workouts.

“This is our new normal,” Fargas said. “From a mental wellness standpoint, I think it’s important for us to be safe and give them the safest environment and they can still have some type of what you would be doing this time of year. With small groups and being very restrictive about where to enter and exit and not crossing paths, it creates isolation within a small group. When they leave, we clean up and disinfect. Then the next group comes in.”

Fargas believes her players being able to lifts weights and getting back on the basketball floor have provided them the necessary diversion during a pandemic which has had world-wide ramifications. Her players are all taking virtual academic classes this summer.

The players’ arrival for voluntary workouts coincided with a spike in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations, which resulted in Louisiana remaining in Phase 2 of the White House’s plan for reopening at least to Aug. 7.

“It’s more about giving them a chance to exercise, get some shots up and get a good sweat,” Fargas said. “This also gives them something to do outside of sitting in their apartment. It gets them on that court in a safe area without pick-up games. You get that noise. The bounce of a basketball, the squeaking of the sneakers. That’s what these kids love to do.”

Compounding the LSU’s disappointment of the abrupt 2019-20 season was not having a chance to reach its goal.

The inscription “Road to the Final Four” was written on the baselines of their practice facility as a daily remainder the 2020 Final Four was scheduled for Smoothie King Center in New Orleans.

“We knew that we were one of the best teams, not only in our league, but in the country,” Fargas said. “We beat five Top 25 teams. We were one win away finishing in the top four of the league. To have that (NCAA) opportunity not happen, not only for your seniors, but for the younger players, is disappointing. That’s why they come to LSU, to go to the postseason and have a chance to go to the Final Four.”

Led by the return of seniors Khayla Pointer and Faustine Aifuwa – a pair of three-year letter winners – LSU has four starters back for 2020-21 with a wealth of talent waiting in the wings.

The 5-foot-7 Pointer led the Tigers in scoring (14.8), assists (144) and steals (62). Aifuwa, a 6-5 center, averaged career-highs in scoring (10.9), rebounds (7.9) and blocks (63).

“We’re losing a lot with our seniors, but I also feel like we’re also gaining a lot,” said Fargas, who is entering her 10th season with a career record of 168-116. “Our offensive production from the perimeter will have more threats. That will allow our post game to operate at a high percentage because there won’t be as many double teams.”

Returning senior forward Awa Trasi, who started in nine of 30 games, averaged 6.5 points and 3.7 rebounds in her first season with LSU last year. Fellow senior returning guard Jailin Cherry, a three-year letter winner who had 14 starts in 30 games, averaged 5.8 points and 3.1 rebounds.

Sophomore guard Tiara Young was among LSU’s players that helped fill the void left by Mitchell and scored 4.8 points with 2.3 rebounds with nine starts in 29 games. Junior guard Karli Seay averaged 2.1 points in 29 games.

Fellow sophomore guard Domonique Davis averaged 1.5 points in 14 games but is expected to take on a bigger role this season, Fargas said.

LSU also welcomes the arrival of six newcomers, a combination of a pair of junior college signees and four freshmen set to make their debut for the Tigers.

Fargas touted the versatility of Marquette transfer Sharna Ayres – a 5-10 product of Melbourne, Australia – as a player that can play a variety of positions other than center and help bolster LSU’s production from 3-point range.

Another such player is 6-2 guard/forward Sarah Shematsi of Annecy, France. She averaged nearly 13 points during her career as the nation’s seventh-rated junior college prospect at South Plains (Texas) College after starting her career at Marquette.

LSU will also have returning experience in the backcourt with New Orleans native Rakell Spencer, a 5-10 senior guard, who has played in 38 career games for the Tigers and averaged 1.6 points. Six-foot junior forward Jalaysha Thomas, who began her career at the University of Florida, is expected to provide depth in the post after her first season in Baton Rouge last year.

The Tigers’ interior should benefit with the arrival of lengthy freshmen forwards Ajae Petty (6-1) and Treasure Thompson (6-2).

“We brought in some size and some players that understand the game and have won at a high level,” Fargas said. “With the addition of our returning players we’re in the best place mentally and physically.”

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