LSU, the No. 1 seed in the West Region, will meet second-seed Texas Tuesday night at Maples Pavillion to decide who goes to the Final Four in Atlanta. The Lady Tigers beat the Longhorns on Dec. 28, 2002, in Baton Rouge, 76-58, when Texas was without one of its key players.
Louisiana Tech took full advantage of its key players in the first half against LSU. The domination down low was predictable, as 6-foot-3 All-American senior Cheryl Ford and 6-2 junior Trina Frierson manhandled the smaller Lady Tigers. The Tech starting frontcourt recorded more rebounds than the entire LSU squad in the first half (14 to nine) and almost outscored LSU (20 to 23).
Size was part of the problem, but the Southeastern Conference Tournament champions simply looked flat in the first half of play. The Lady Tigers stood flat-footed in the paint while their opponents, big and small, leapt aggressively for rebounds and scored repeatedly in the paint.
Gunter tried a myriad of rotations and lineups with frequent substitutions in the first half, with a mixed bag of success. Starting point guard Tameka Johnson had entered the game with two fractured bones near her right eye and wore special glasses, but appeared to need a prescription set of lenses as she missed her first five shots in the opening five minutes of play.
Johnson was aggressively looking for her offense, taking all but two of LSU's first seven shots. But it was not to be her half. Gunter made the call and substituted fifth-year senior guard Kisha James, who is one of two players still remaining from that 1999 squad who suffered the last defeat at the hands of the Lady Techsters.
After the substitution, James immediately drained a big three-point shot to bring LSU within three points, 9-12.
Senior DeTrina White, the other fifth-year player left from the '99 team, subbed into the game early for senior Ke-Ke Tardy, who picked up three quick fouls. White brought some energy onto the floor and recorded a quick steal. But for every play LSU made, and each of the few baskets they could muster, Louisiana Tech was there with an answer – and more.
The Lady Tigers never scored so much as even a pair of unanswered baskets in the half. The Tech three-point lead grew to five, then to seven. Then to nine, ten and even 12 before a lay-up by Smith in the final 20 seconds closed the gap to its halftime margin of 10 points. At 23-33, LSU looked lost and offensively clueless.
The saving grace for LSU was that, despite the pounding they were taking in the paint and their lax ballhandling, they had recorded seven steals as part of Tech's 13 turnovers. The defense was poor overall, but there was a ray of light that defense could be their key to success.
"There was no genius at halftime," revealed Gunter after the game. "If felt like we had been out-hustled and out-scrapped in the first half… Finally, we decided to do a good job on the defensive end of the floor."
But the second half started out as badly as the first ended, with Tech's Erica Smith bombing a three-pointer on their first possession, after the entire team had not taken a single shot behind the arc in the game.
The 10-point lead bloomed to 16, but LSU showed their first great signs of life with a 7-0 run. The comeback bid was led by fab freshman Seimone Augustus, who recorded a steal and two baskets. She would have had more if not for a no-call in a mid-range jumper where her arm was hit during a shot, but Aiysha Smith rebounded the ball quickly and put it back for an easy basket.
"I don't like to be down, honestly," Augustus said. "Especially by as much as we were down. I felt that we came out sluggish, and somebody had to do something to pick this team up. So I came out and fired the team up. DeTrina White, Aiysha Smith – everybody got on a roll, and the couple of buckets I hit got us started to play LSU basketball."
That surge was short-lived, however, as the Lady Techsters returned to their towers of power. Ford and Frierson each chipped in two baskets to lead their team to an 8-0 run that built a 17-point lead, their largest of the game.
But during that run junior Amber Obaze, Tech's most veteran and highest scoring guard, picked up her fourth foul at the 15:45 mark and went to the bench. A few minutes later, sophomore wing guard Erica Smith picked up her fourth foul as well. Louisiana Tech is a team that brings just three players off the bench, and the confluence of foul trouble and physical fatigue took a lethal toll on the Lady Techsters and their lead as LSU erupted for a 16-0 run.
"I thought that changed the game. No question," said Tech head coach Kurt Budke about the Obaze foul. "She wasn't scoring tonight, but she was doing a good job on Siemone. I think that had a lot to do with their run… We didn't have quite the bench they had, and that hurt us. During their runs they would maybe get a four or five-point run because maybe our kids were just a little tired."
Suddenly, Ford and Frierson were turning the ball over, missing shots deep in the paint and getting their shots blocked. The LSU perimeter defense found another gear of aggression, forcing turnovers and frustrating Tech's guards who wanted to feed their post players.
"On the defensive end, we were getting steals and coming down in the transition and converting," said Aiysha Smith. "That what got us there. Starting on the defensive end and getting it to the offensive end."
The 16-0 run started with a big three-pointer from Smith at the top of the key, cutting the deficit to 14 points at 50-36. Smith pulled up from the free throw line on the next possession to cut it to 12. The next series fed the ball to Augustus, who despite a double-team with her back to the basket turned and put up a shot that when fouled earned her two points at the free throw line.
Next up was DeTrina White, who also caught the ball with her back the basket and found her way to the free throw line as she attempted a shot in traffic from eight feet. The lead was down to eight points now, but both teams struggled to get good looks for the next three-plus minutes.
After a minute-plus of scoreless action, junior guard Doneeka Hodges camped out in the corner as James pushed the ball in transition. James attacked the basket and drew the defense, then whipped a no-look pass to Hodges, who set her feet and nailed a three-pointer.
A little more than two minutes later, White put up a basket on a catch-and-shoot deep in the paint to close the game to just a three-point affair.
Johnson had shot just 1-of-8 in the first half and recorded three turnovers to go with her three assists. She later explained that she removed her glasses at her first substitution because they were bothering her, but boldly proclaimed the protective eyewear did not affect her shot. This despite her admission that the glasses fogged up during warm-ups.
"I had the looks, but they weren't going in," she said. "I can't say the glasses effected my shot."
What did change was how Johnson approached her role within the team in the