Tested Lady Tigers add depth and talent

LSU women's basketball coach Sue Gunter, like many people in her profession, is a stickler for detail. The attention she has paid to the smaller matters has been a big key to her longevity, as she enters her 21st year with the Lady Tigers and 39th overall as a head coach.<br><br> That said, there may be a few items Gunter should put on her checklist as the Lady Tigers begin their 2002-03 schedule: extra laundry detergent, muscle balm and chalk.

The detergent will be necessary to keep a clean supply of uniforms, since more of Gunter's players should be dressed out and on the court instead of in street clothes and on the bench. Last season, injuries reduced LSU's game roster down to as few as six players in one stretch, but the Lady Tigers managed to play some of their best basketball when the odds were at their tallest.

 

The muscle balm is for Gunter's neck. Instead of looking straight ahead at the court for the only players at her disposal, her noggin will be on a swivel as she tries to work in the best combination of players from a stock of talented athletes. They include freshman Seimone Augustus, perhaps the most heralded girls' high school player ever.

 

The chalk will be for drawing up plays for one of the most versatile groups to take the floor for LSU in recent history. Gunter will be able to go with a bigger or smaller lineup and faster or more deliberate schemes depending on the opposition.

 

The experience, talent and size are present for the Lady Tigers to challenge the existing powers in the Southeastern Conference for league honors, but the heart of this year's team lies in what those returning players displayed at the tail end of last season.

 

With the aforementioned injuries and absence of depth, LSU used just six players to upset No. 3 Tennessee in the SEC Tournament semifinals. The Lady Tigers needed that strong post-season showing to get into the NCAA Tournament, where they advanced to the second round with a win over a much deeper Santa Clara team that ran an up-tempo offense in the high altitude of Boulder, Colo.

 

"I don't know that if I as a coach, and we as a staff, have ever had seven kids who've worked any harder at the end of the year and went to the lengths they did to be successful," said Gunter. "It was extraordinary."

 

LSU finished the season with an 18-12 record and the No. 18 Associated Press ranking after having used no more than eight players at any point in the season. And from mid-December to the conclusion of their schedule, the Lady Tigers usually had seven or fewer bodies available to face off against teams that didn't hesitate to use ten players or more.

 

The injury bug bit even before the season started and took out one of LSU's projected starters. Senior forward DeTrina White missed most of the pre-season with a back injury and was diagnosed with a stress fracture in her foot before the Lady Tigers played their first exhibition game.

 

Gunter says White is back in fine form for this season and is being monitored to make sure her back problem doesn't reoccur.

 

"There's certain things DeTrina brings to the floor that you don't get anywhere else," said Gunter. "There's no way you can duplicate her intensity, the type of leadership she affords, her work habits. She's just a dynamite player…I just think she brings everybody else up a level when she's playing."

 

The second Lady Tiger to fall last season was freshman forward Wendlyn Jones, who suffered an ACL tear during a practice on Nov. 10. She also took a redshirt and was given full clearance well before pre-season practice began.

 

Starting senior point guard Keisha James is also at 100 percent after enduring her second left knee ACL tear. The last injury happened against Mercer on Dec. 19, and she had taken a medical redshirt after suffering her first tear in November 1999.

 

Sophomore forward Tillie Willis had a very limited freshman campaign after tearing her ACL on Feb. 20 in a practice session. Doctors have not given Willis a clean bill of health just yet and she will not be able to practice with the team until then.

 

The only other LSU player with medical concerns is junior forward Roneeka Hodges, who was restricted severely last season with a lower leg problem that doctors have yet to define. Until they are able to come up with a treatment plan, her status for the season remains uncertain.

 

But the successful treatment of injured players is not the reason why LSU is attracting so much attention heading into the season. The ten polls that track women's college basketball have the Lady Tigers ranked in the top ten (the Women's Basketball News Service places them the highest at No. 3) because they expect LSU to exceed last year's success now that Gunter is working with seven returning starters, a good supply of lettermen and Augustus, who is expected to make an immediate impact.

 

"It's been a while since we've had a full complement of players," Gunter noted. "It's going to be unusual. Last year, I guarantee you we didn't have anyone who wished for more playing time. I don't know what Tameka Johnson's going to do this year when she knows she can come out and get a blow."

 

Johnson, who didn't become eligible to play until Dec. 15, took over for James on Dec. 20 and went on to average nearly 36 minutes a game. She never left the court in the last eight games of the season and totaled 40 minutes in eleven games on the year.

 

Johnson hit her stride late in the season to earn a spot on the SEC All-Tournament team. She averaged 11.1 points for the season and broke the LSU record for assists in a game with 15 against Ole Miss. Four of the top six assists performances in school history belong to Johnson, who led the SEC in assist-to-turnover ratio.

 

With James back in the picture, Gunter has the interesting dilemma of deciding how to get the most out of the two very capable perimeter players.

 

"The two of them looked forward to playing so much before Keisha went down," said Gunter. "Keisha can play at 2 as well. You're really looking at Keisha and Doneeka Hodges as our solid 2's right now, but you'll see a rotation of those guards because Keisha can certainly play some point as well."

 

Doneeka Hodges received second-team All-SEC honors from league coaches after starting all 30 games for the Lady Tigers and averaging 15.3 points a game.

 

Augustus could also see time at the 2-guard, or even at power forward, but Gunter says her most natural position is small forward.

 

In her stellar career at Capitol High School in Baton Rouge, it seemed at times that Augustus was everywhere on the court. She ended her prep career with 52 straight wins and numerous honors: 2002 Student Sports National Player of the Year, Girls Basketball National Player of the Year, Parade and McDonald's All-American in 2001 and 2002; three-time Street and Smith and USA Today All-American

 

Dominating the Louisiana high school basketball scene, Augustus was chosen as the Class 4A Most Valuable Player four years in a row and named the state's Miss Basketball as a junior and senior. Her career totals include 3,600 points (24.8 per game), 1,728 rebounds (11.9), 864 assists (6.0), 576 blocked shots (4.0) and 432 steals (3.0).

 

"I think you'll find that Seimone Augustus is everything you thought she'd be and everything we think she will be," said Gunter. "I think she's going to be a very dynamic player. We can't make her a sophomore before she's a freshman.

 

"I think one of the nice things for Seimone is that she's walking into a program that is not sitting on her shoulders, and I think she feels very good about that."

 

Augustus is already receiving support from her teammates in practice. She says they have helped her realize she is entering a new program and isn't expected to be a perfect player right off the bat.

 

"I'm just going to come our and do my best, and do what I can do for the team," said Augustus when asked about the pressure on her to perform. "They had a great team before I got here and I'm just going to try to make it better."

 

But even the bright future that projected for Augustus at LSU doesn't hide the accomplishments of the Lady Tigers' top player from last season. In her first season as a transfer from Tyler Junior College, Aiysha Smith started all 30 games for LSU and averaged nearly 33 minutes a game. She led the Lady Tigers with 15.9 points and 7.7 rebounds a game and was a first-team pick on the league coaches All-SEC squad.

 

"I'm constantly telling Pokey (Chatman) and Carla (Berry), who do most of our recruiting, to go out and find us ten more Aiysha Smiths," said Gunter. "She's just that good and she's just a terrific kid to have around."

 

Gunter believes Smith will have an even more fruitful senior season with support from her bench, and Smith is hoping to return the support the reserves gave her last season when she was soldiering through the season.

 

"We didn't have too much of a crowd so the team kept us up and kept us going," said Smith. "They could see when we were a little bit tired and just kept talking to us from the bench. Now they're going to be in the game and we can do the same for them."

 

Senior forward Ke-Ke Tardy rounds out the returning starters for LSU. Her junior season saw her average 9.6 points and 5.3 rebounds a game and earn a spot on the SEC Academic Honor Roll.

 

The sixth woman for LSU through their rough stretches last season was Scholanda Dorrell. She was a starter for nine games in the first half of the season but did not receive a scholarship for the 2002-03 season. Gunter did not elaborate on why Dorrell was not back on the team but said her status would be re-evaluated next season.

 

Patty Hanten, a junior college transfer from Miami-Dade, also chipped in playing time from the bench as the only other Lady Tiger dressed out in addition to the starting five for a few games.

 

Sophomore forward Florence Williams will get to play her first collegiate game after sitting out last year for academic reasons. In her senior season at Miami-Edison, she led her team to a state title and was named the MVP of the state tournament.

 

Treynelle Clavelle, a 6-foot-3 center expected to provide a nice post complement, was the Lady Tigers' other signee for 2002. She was the Class 3A MVP in her junior season and averaged 28 points, 15 rebounds and six blocks as a senior at Jeanerette High School.

 

Another big player will come in for LSU in late December when 6-5 center Crystal White gains her eligibility. White, a Nike and USA Today All-American, transferred from Duke and won't be available to the Lady Tigers until after she completes the current semester.

 

In the last few years, LSU has enjoyed the ability to sneak up on a few teams and come away with upset wins – especially against the mighty Tennessee program. But Gunter realizes the talent she has stockpiled and the reputation the Lady Tigers have gained as driven competitors will make it difficult for her team to surprise anyone.

"We're going to be one of those teams this year that have a target on our back," said Gunter. "We've been the ones that were shooting at everyone else's back, and now it's going to be on us this year. We're going to have to stand up and find a way to deal with the pressure that's always going to be there."


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