LSU makes all the right adjustments in SEC

March, 3, 2012

Courtney Jones talks about how LSU has dealt with injuries and the impending arrival of coach Nikki Caldwell's baby, all while making it to the SEC tournament final.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- LSU coach Nikki Caldwell has certainly had an interesting first season in Baton Rouge, La. And the most exciting stuff hasn't even happened yet.

On March 24, Caldwell is due to deliver her first child … although she wouldn't mind if the little one showed up before that. But not too soon, considering her team is still playing in the SEC tournament.

The fourth-seeded Lady Tigers upset No. 1 seed Kentucky 72-61 in Saturday's semifinal at Bridgestone Arena. LSU has had the Wildcats' number this year, having also defeated Kentucky 61-51 back on Feb. 5 in Baton Rouge. That game marked the end of LSU's midseason skid -- the Lady Tigers had lost five of their previous six games -- and the start of a six-game winning streak.

Caldwell, the former Tennessee player and assistant coach who spent the past three seasons guiding UCLA, also has dealt with losing the most irreplaceable player on her roster. Point guard Destini Hughes, one of five seniors for LSU, suffered a knee injury in a Jan. 19 defeat at Tennessee. That ended her college career, but not the hopes of the Lady Tigers.

Caldwell told senior forward LaSondra Barrett -- one of the team's better ball handlers despite being 6 feet, 2 inches -- that she'd need to start spending some time at point guard. Others would have to help out with that, too. But Barrett -- whose nickname is "Boogie" -- had to accept her expanded role. Especially because at that point, LSU was also without guard Jeanne Kenney.

"That was a big adjustment," Caldwell said. "There's not too many players you can move from the 5 or 4 all the way to the point guard. Usually, you'll move a swing guard into that situation, but we had also lost Jeanne during that stretch with a concussion.

"By [Barrett] stepping up at that point and playing the point guard, it really helped us. It gave us a different sense of ball security. And we had to move Courtney Jones out to the perimeter, too. We were really shuffling players around, and I think it took us a little bit to settle in. Once we did, we started on that run."

The only game the Lady Tigers have lost since Feb. 2 was the regular-season finale at Georgia, 62-46 on Feb. 26. They got a scare here during the quarterfinals Friday, when it took a rally in the last two minutes to win a defensive war with Arkansas, 41-40. The Razorbacks finished that game on an 0-of-16 drought from the field.

Kentucky shot 40.7 percent (24 of 59) from the field Saturday, but the game was played at LSU's pace the whole way. After holding a 26-16 (yuck) lead at halftime, LSU shot 73.3 percent (11 of 15) in the second half, leaving Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell with some steam coming out of his ears and his team needing to regroup before heading into the NCAA tournament.

Last year, Kentucky beat LSU in the SEC quarterfinals, and that ended the Lady Tigers' season. They didn't get an NCAA at-large berth at 19-13, and coach Van Chancellor stepped down after four seasons in Baton Rouge.

Caldwell came in after having made the NCAA field in two of her three seasons at UCLA. She immediately gave LSU a dose of needed optimism and confidence.

Jones led LSU with 18 points Saturday, and Barrett had 15. LSU outrebounded the Wildcats 38-23, and now at 22-9, relishes the opportunity to play for the SEC tourney crown Sunday (ESPN2, 6 p.m. ET).

Plus, the Lady Tigers are all looking forward to being "big sisters" to the baby. Just as Caldwell once was to Tennessee coach Pat Summitt's son, Tyler.

"You know that your path may have some … well, I wouldn't call them obstacles," Caldwell said of everything that has happened this season. "There are just things that come your way, and you deal with them the best you know how and trust in the foundation that you have as a person.

"As for the baby, people have said, 'Enjoy it, it will change your life.' Of course, in college, I had the opportunity to watch Tyler grow up. He was around all the time; it allowed us as players to see Pat as not only our coach, but as a mother. It definitely imprinted on all of us, having Tyler around.

"And I know this little one will have an unbelievable support system. It's an enjoyment that we're all enjoying right now. The kids high-five me, and they high-five my belly for the baby."

Mechelle Voepel covers the WNBA, women's college basketball, and other college sports for espnW. Voepel began covering women's basketball in 1984, and has been with ESPN since 1996.


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