Family and friends filtered into the Pete Maravich Assembly Center Monday as they waited to see where their LSU Lady Tigers would rank in the 2012 NCAA Women's basketball tournament.
They didn't have to wait long.
At 6:16 p.m., LSU's name popped up on the TV screen as a No. 5 seed and will play host to No. 12-seeded San Diego State (25-6) at 6:30 p.m. Sunday.
In the other regional game, fourth-seeded Penn State (24-6) takes on 13th-seeded Texas-El Paso (29-3) at 4 p.m. The winners of the two games meet at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, and the regional winner moves on to the Bridgeport (Ct.) Regional, likely to face perennial powerhouse Connecticut in the Sweet 16. "This team has worked extremely hard to position themselves in allowing us to continue to play more basketball," LSU coach Nikki Caldwell said. "I'm extremely excited for this group. I'm extremely excited for our fans and our community. We're looking forward to some very, very competitive basketball."
LSU (22-10) will be in the NCAA tournament one year after being excluded from the Big Dance. The Lady Tigers finished the season strong going 8-3 in February and into March, including a pair of wins at the SEC tournament to reach the championship game.
The Lady Tigers defeated Arkansas in the quarterfinal round of play 41-40, followed by 72-61 win over Kentucky to give LSU a shot at Tennessee, where it lost 70-58 after closing within four points in the second half.
In that game, it was a scary scene for LSU and senior forward LaSondra Barrett. Barrett left the court on a stretcher with 14:18 remaining in the game after taking a knee to her head.
"We talk about standing toe-to-toe and we did against Arkansas and we did against Kentucky," Caldwell said. "We still did against Tennessee even without Barrett."
Barrett said she Monday will be ready to go for the NCAA tournament.
"(Monday) I got on the court and did contact stuff and I felt pretty good," Barrett said. "I will be ready for the first game and right now I'm trying to get healthy. We are just trying to take it slow and take precautions just so I won't have any setbacks."
As a senior, Barrett has excelled and was named on the first All-SEC team in February. She is averaging a team-leading 12.5 points per game to along with 6.9 rebounds per game.
Even with the No. 5 seed in the tournament, LSU faced its fair share of battles in Caldwell's first season as coach. Barrett, who is primarily a forward, was asked to take on some of the point guard duties when starting point guard Destini Hughes suffered a season-ending knee injury.
The Lady Tigers also hit a rough patch in mid-January as they lost five of six games, with their lone win coming in a 71-68 overtime victory over East Tennessee State.
"I think we just had a mentality that we never gave up," Barrett said. "We were hit with a lot of adversity with injuries, but one thing is that we never gave up. We brought so much intensity and effort. Everybody stepped up their game a notch."
San Diego State comes to Baton Rouge on a four-game winning streak. During that streak, the Lady Aztecs have beaten opponents by an average of 14.8 points. Leading SDSU is junior guard Courtney Clements, who is averaging 17.4 points per game.
Beth Burns is the Lady Aztecs' coach, back for her second stint at the school. She guided SDSU to the Sweet 17 two years ago and her team punched a ticket to the NCAA Tournament this season by winning the Mountain West tournament championship, 57-43 over New Mexico.
"I'm very familiar with Coach Burns when I was coaching at UCLA," Caldwell said. "She's going to have her team very fired up. She always has been a coach that is defensive-minded and has great guard play."
With the game set for Sunday, Caldwell and her staff aren't wasting time and began preparation for San Diego State Monday.
Caldwell and her players echoed similar statements – everyone is excited to be playing on their home court to open tournament play.
"There's no better feeling then just knowing that you're playing in front of your home fans," Barrett said. "LSU has special fans here and we play well at home."
Sophomore guard Jeanne Kenney added: "Our fans are the best. This next game is going to be really special."