LSU's near-perfect game derails Arkansas' perfect season

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. -- After spending Big 12 opening night in Lawrence, Kan., on Wednesday, I drove south to the land of red pigs Thursday for the start of SEC play.

The sky was relentlessly gray, the kind of day where it seemed not even Katrina and the Waves could find any sunshine to walk on … but then later, something amazing happened. Or at least it was amazing enough to make me exclaim to myself in the car, "Oh, my goodness, look at that!"

A broad expanse of the sky to the west proved the sun still existed, because it was leaving a stunningly beautiful purplish residue as it set.

And as it turned out, purple would be the color the rest of the night, as well. LSU, looking a lot better than No. 11 in the nation, handed No. 18 Arkansas its first loss of the season, 76-54 at Bud Walton Arena.

It was the 11th consecutive victory in this series for LSU, which had senior center Sylvia Fowles back in the starting lineup. She missed two games -- LSU's loss at Middle Tennessee and its victory over New Orleans -- in late December because of knee surgery. She returned for 22 minutes off the bench in a win against Florida State on Jan. 3.

Thursday, Fowles looked like the All-American she is.

"I think I did well tonight," Fowles said. "Physically, I'm feeling good, ready to get back to my normal self. I missed a couple of chippies and got a little upset because those are what I usually make. But like Coach said, you've got to ease your way back in."

Uh-huh. You can bet that Arkansas found nothing easy about Fowles. She had 18 points, 10 rebounds, three blocked shots and two steals in 32 minutes for Van Chancellor's squad.

And LSU's defense -- which entered the game No. 1 in the SEC, allowing 49.1 ppg -- looked as good as ever. Arkansas scored just 17 points in the first half, shooting 28 percent with 11 turnovers.

Arkansas improved in the second half. But senior standout Lauren Ervin suffered a knee injury with just less than five minutes left and had to be helped off the court. An MRI on Friday confirmed the worst: a torn ACL, meaning Ervin's college career is over.

That's a terrible blow for Arkansas, which is trying to rejuvenate its program under new coach Tom Collen. His mind was heavy with concern about Ervin -- a smart WNBA team should still draft this kid because her pro potential is extremely good -- but he also talked about how important it was for his team to keep a loss to LSU in perspective.

"They're probably the best defensive team in the country," Collen said. "They jumped a lot of our screens. I told the kids at halftime that it looked like they knew our offense better than we knew our offense."

Arkansas senior guard Brittney Vaughn explained how difficult it is to execute offense against LSU.

"As a point guard, I have several counters," she said. "But if they take away your initial play and your counters, it's hard to do anything. They don't give you much to work with. If you have an open shot, you have to take it. That's what they make you do.

"Their wings are out in denial, and if you start your offense with a pass … well, then it's pretty hard to start your offense. And then if you try to back-door cut, it leads you right into Sylvia."

Vaughn had to laugh then, knowing she'd just described the offensive equivalent of being between the devil and the deep blue sea.

"It's pretty amazing," she said. "It's one of the best defenses I'll probably ever play against."

Chancellor, in his first season at LSU, said he didn't want to change much at all about the program's defense when he came in. Especially considering that X's and O's guru Bob Starkey is still on the sidelines for LSU helping make the transition to Chancellor as head coach as smooth as possible.

The alterations that Chancellor has made have been on offense. And Thursday, that was clicking, too. LSU shot 54 percent from the field for the game, including 62.1 percent in the second half. Senior guard Erica White had 12 of her team's 32 assists.

"Since I arrived at LSU, I have tried to mesh what they've been doing and some things I believed in offensively," Chancellor said. "Tonight, we finally watched that grow to what we wanted it to be.

"LSU has always played great defense, and our first half was as good defensively as I've seen in this league. But what we wanted to come around was our offense."

Senior guard RaShonta LeBlanc, one of the lynchpins on the LSU defense, said, "We're a lot more free on offense, and that's been kind of difficult transition. But it's good for our team with the players we have.

"I think this was one of the best whole games we've had, for all 40 minutes. This was a good game all-around defensively and offensively."

LSU's other losses -- besides the defeat without Fowles at Middle Tennessee -- were at Maryland and at Rutgers in November. Those are what you call "good" losses, of course. And with this kind of start to SEC season, the purple people showed they can play the way they need to for another shot at the Final Four.

"I feel with the attitude we have," LeBlanc said, "it's possible for us to make it back there."

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.