Lady Tigers look to add title to experience
CLEVELAND -- The story never seems to be about them, no matter how many times they keep showing up.
They're the names you don't recognize as easily as Gunter, Katrina, Pokey, Starkey, Seimone and Sylvia when the conversation turns to this year's Final Four participants from Baton Rouge, La.
They are the members of the junior class that, along with classmate Sylvia Fowles, has LSU back in the Final Four for the fourth year in a row. They are Quianna Chaney, RaShonta LeBlanc, Khalilah Mitchell, Ashley Thomas, Marian Whitfield and Erica White.
And they know there is only one thing that's going to change their standing as background characters in the drama that seems to emanate annually out of Baton Rouge.
"We're here and we're just trying to worry about getting over the hump," Chaney said. "The last two years, we've been getting out the first round [of the Final Four], so we're glad to be here but we just want to play Sunday and also play Tuesday, as well."
Last year's installment was supposed to be the end of the era. The future certainly appeared to be tinged by twilight after Duke rolled over LSU by 19 points in Boston, ending Seimone Augustus' brilliant college career in unceremonious fashion.
The catch was a group of sophomores, now juniors who had tasted the Final Four in each of their first two seasons (and in the case of Mitchell and Whitfield, their first three seasons, thanks to redshirts) and weren't ready to follow the script.
They knew they had Fowles in the middle and they could work on the rest.
"It started in the summer, when we worked on ourselves individually to get better," LeBlanc said. "We knew that if we get better individually, we'll get better as a team. People took time out to better themselves and better their shots."
Outside of Fowles, the returning juniors averaged a total of 22.3 points per game last season, led by Chaney at 6.1 points per game, and recorded 58 of 175 possible starts.
So far this season, that same group minus Fowles is responsible for 140 of 185 possible starts and 36 points per game (not including junior transfer Katie Anthony's three points per game). And a team that hit just 81 3-pointers while shooting 32.3 percent from behind the arc a year ago has hit 132 3-pointers at a 33.5 percent clip entering the game against Rutgers.
The outside shooting, especially during a torrid postseason run, has opened up an offense that relied almost exclusively on Augustus and Fowles last season, freeing up the center from at least some of the overwhelming attention most expected her to see this season.
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And just as the production on the court has been dispersed without Augustus, team leadership also gets split between the members of a group that has been on hand for a combined 14 Final Four games.
"We have all different kind of leaders," LeBlanc said. "Everybody takes part in the leadership, and I think that's what makes this team a little different from the previous years."
A leader when it comes to setting up the offense as arguably the only true point guard on hand in Cleveland, White has a 2:1 assist-to-turnover ratio this season while posting more total assists than anyone but Ivory Latta among players at the Final Four. And like the rest of the Lady Tigers, she has learned enough from the last two years to know maintaining that level of success doesn't entail filling anyone's shoes. In her case, that means handling the same role Temeka Johnson played on the court for the first two Final Four teams without trying to be Johnson off the court.
"I think I'm making my own way," White said. "I think I do things differently. I do take the lead on the floor, but I try to lead by example off the floor, not be so vocal."
With the past two years fresh in the minds of every player, nobody has needed to play the role of vocal leader in reminding the team about the dangers of distraction at the Final Four.
"It helps to have a lot of people who have been here -- most of them have been to three and we have two players that have been to all four," Thomas said. "So we just know how to handle the things that go on outside of the basketball."
Of course, not every Final Four experience is created equal. The LSU media guide lists LeBlanc's favorite moment on the court as coming on as an unheralded reserve in a regional final against Duke her freshman season and shutting down Monique Currie. She's now expected to do that kind of thing on a regular basis, especially following the graduation of stopper Scholanda Dorrell, and the wide eyes of a freshman have been replaced with a more seasoned gaze.
"It's a little different now, because I've been here twice," LeBlanc said. "It's not like your freshman year when this is what you're shooting for -- making the Final Four. It's a little bit different; we're trying to win a championship here."
And therein is the juxtaposition that makes LSU intriguing for reasons that go far beyond Pokey Chatman's resignation. Never has an experienced team been so unproven.
"Last year's tournament run, it wasn't pretty," White said. "And it got really ugly at the worst possible time. But this year we're playing better and better, and I feel like it's leading up to something big."
Nobody knows better than White and the Lady Tigers what the opposite of that feels like, but only time will tell if this is the year all that experience pays off.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
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