With starting forward Mandisa Stevenson out of practice all week because of a sprained ankle and teammate Tia Miller out because of academic suspension, Auburn Coach Joe Ciampi had no choice but to turn to Payne against a powerful offensive club like LSU. Averaging just under 20 minutes per game this season Payne says she got herself mentally prepared to start and everything just fell into place on the defensive end leading to the victory.
"Coming into the game knowing I was going to start and the fact that Mandisa wasn't going to be playing many minutes at all I was having my pre-game nap and woke up from the fact that I was dreaming about how many minutes I was going to have to play," Payne says. "After I got over that, just focusing on the fact that I was going to have to conserve my energy somehow, I guess the nervous energy turned itself into a good defensive effort.
"If they are just going to keep shooting it into my hands I will block it," the 6-7 Australia native adds. "It's what I love to do. It's the best feeling. I get the best rush from blocking a shot. I was wondering that after I had 10 if they wouldn't be shooting it so much into my hands, but they did and I'll take it."
Marita Payne gets physical against LSU.
In addition to Payne's outstanding performance the Tigers also played well in just about all areas of the game. Guard Natasha Brackett led the way offensively with 22 points while Willingham added 16 points and nine rebounds. Nicole Louden finished in double figures as well with 11 points and six assists. Ciampi says the defensive effort his team gave as a whole was the difference in winning and losing on Sunday.
"It comes down to being a defensive team that can disrupt you and then a great rebounding team," Ciampi says. "That's what we were this afternoon to beat a very good LSU team. They are a team that scored 103 points their last game (at Alabama)."
Early on Auburn showed they would be a team to be reckoned with against LSU after falling 70-59 to the Tigers earlier this year in Baton Rouge. A red-shot Bracket got Auburn on a roll early with seven of Auburn's first 15 points as the Tigers took a seven point lead just eight minutes into the first half. While LSU would make several runs at Auburn, they were never able to take the lead. Point guard Temeka Johnson brought LSU within one at 19-18 when she hit a jumper with 4:46 left, but it was all Auburn from that point forward in the first half.
Reserve guard Nitasha Brown got the ball rolling when she drained a three from the top of the key to put Auburn back up by four. Just moments later Stevenson, in because of foul trouble to Willingham, scored on an easy lay-up for a six point advantage. Doneeka Hodges drained a three for LSU with 3:13 left, but that would be the final LSU points of the half. Back-to-back baskets by Stevenson, free throws from Brackett and a last-second shot by Payne to close the half gave the Tigers a commanding 12-point lead at intermission.
The key for Auburn in the first half in addition to Payne's play on the interior was the help from Stevenson. After not practicing all week she was forced into action early because of two quick fouls to Willingham. Ciampi says that she was a big reason why Auburn was able to hold off LSU in the first 20 minutes.
"We were counting on a two-minute rotation for her at the 14 and 10 minute marks and see how it feels," Ciampi says. "She didn't practice and then she was at shoot-around sort of gimpy this morning, but she stayed around. It's a credit to Jared Grace and Dr. Mike Goodlet for getting therapy and rehabbing all morning. Then she was ready to go. She gave us some great minutes and she just toughed it out for us."
The second half was much of the same for Auburn as the Tigers quickly built on the lead thanks to the scoring of Brackett. After scoring nine points in the first half she got things rolling again. With the lead at 14 points with 16 minutes remaining she scored on a lay-up and then another two minutes later. After LSU cut the lead back down to 13 she hit a long three-pointer at the 13:12 mark to make it 46-30 Auburn.
LSU would make one final run at the Tigers behind the play of Semoine Augustus. Scoring four of her 22 points, she helped cut the lead to 51-41 on a lay-up with 7:18 remaining. Brackett came right back with a lay-up of her own just 27 seconds later and the battle was on. LSU eventually got the lead down to eight on a Scholandra Hoston basket with 5:54 left, but that would be as close as they would come.
Led by Brackett and Louden Auburn would scored the next 13 points of the game in a three and a half minute stretch to put the game away. The final nail in the LSU coffin came when Louden sank two free throws with 2:18 left to put Auburn up 66-45. The Tigers would coast the rest of the way to the victory and drop LSU to 18-4 overall and 6-1 in SEC play.
Auburn returns to action Thursday night when they travel to Oxford, Miss. to face the improving Ole Miss Rebels and Coach Carol Ross. A former Ciampi assistant and Florida coach, Ross will have her team prepared for the Tigers. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m.