- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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There are a great many things more strenuous for a soon-to-deliver pregnant woman than coaching at the SEC tournament. LSU's Nikki Caldwell didn't seem fazed by it last year as her team made it all the way to the championship game.
Still, a couple of us reporters -- admittedly nonparents and so a bit squeamish about such things -- kept nervously looking over at Caldwell back then in Nashville, Tenn., as if her little one might just suddenly appear on the sideline.
It turned out, though, that this baby knew exactly what she was doing. Justice Simone Fargas was born exactly a year ago -- on March 6, 2012 -- which was three weeks earlier than her projected arrival time.
But that was actually fortuitous: She came early on a Tuesday morning following LSU's loss to Tennessee in the SEC final on Sunday. So Caldwell was already back home in Baton Rouge, La., and the Lady Tigers wouldn't have another game until the start of the NCAA tournament on March 18 at their own Maravich Center.
Way to show up at the right time, kiddo.
Now, you could say the same thing about the 19-10 Lady Tigers themselves. This season didn't start well, and the middle was rather shaky too. But the closing stretch has been very strong: LSU goes into the SEC tournament on a six-game winning streak.
"You look at LSU, who is the sixth seed, and I can see them winning the tournament," said Matt Mitchell, coach of No. 2 seed Kentucky. "There's a number of teams that can win it, and I don't know that there's any clear-cut favorite."
Tennessee is the top seed for the event in Duluth, Ga., which gets under way Wednesday with a game between No. 12 seed Mississippi State and No. 13 Alabama. (Mississippi is not participating in the tournament as part of self-imposed sanctions for academic and recruiting violations.)
The Lady Vols have a first-round bye along with Kentucky, Georgia and Texas A&M. But those teams all understand the potential danger of facing LSU. Three of them have lost to the Lady Tigers in the past month and the other, Tennessee, needed a late basket to win by two.
"Everybody is doing what they need to do," Caldwell said of LSU's surge. "We're a better defensive team, a better rebounding team. [The players are] liking more playing with each other, and that's been key for us. So it's been an interesting year: losing what we lost last year, and then the players that have emerged."
LSU lost six players, including top scorer LaSondra Barrett, after Caldwell's inaugural season with LSU, which went 23-11 and fell in the NCAA tournament's second round to Penn State.
Entering this season, Caldwell felt sure she could count on three veterans: seniors Adrienne Webb and Bianca Lutley, and junior Jeanne Kenney. They have come through. Webb is averaging 13.9 points, Lutley 10.2 and Kenney, the point guard, directing the squad with 119 assists to 60 turnovers.
But after those three, Caldwell really didn't know who would step forward. Several have, in particular junior center Theresa Plaisance, who leads the team in scoring (17.6 ppg) and rebounding (8.2 rpg) after averages of 4.5 and 1.9 last season. And freshman guard Danielle Ballard (12.6 ppg, 6.7 rpg) has been a big boost too.
The 6-foot-5 Plaisance didn't start last season and averaged just 11.7 minutes. She never seemed very comfortable or confident on court. But she has transformed herself into a first-team All-SEC player this season. Ballard made the SEC's all-freshman team, and both she and Plaisance were on the league's all-defensive squad.
"I couldn't tell you how important Danielle Ballard's play has been to our team," Caldwell said. "And statistically, where Theresa Plaisance was last year compared to where she is this year -- I've not been around another player that's made that type of jump in their game and has been very efficient in everything she's done."
Other coaches have noticed that too, including Texas A&M's Gary Blair. His Aggies beat LSU 74-57 in Baton Rouge on Feb. 4. In the regular-season finale on Sunday at Texas A&M, LSU turned that around and won 67-52. Plaisance had 11 points in the first meeting with Texas A&M, 16 in the second.
"I just think she's a complete player now," Blair said. "It's mind-boggling where she was as a freshman compared to where she is now."
All the Lady Tigers have to pitch in, though, because the team is down to just eight healthy and eligible players. But there is a silver linings even to that.
"They get more attention with the four of us," Caldwell said of the coach-to-player ratio. "And practices are extremely short; we try not to log a lot of minutes in practice or get up and down a lot. I think they're enjoying that because they don't have to go as long. But their attention span has been a lot more focused as well. We have a little slogan that we're going by that 'Eight is enough.'"
It certainly can be. In 2002, Duke rode that slogan all the way to the Women's Final Four. Incidentally, eight would also be enough -- eight straight victories, that is -- to give LSU the SEC tournament title and a berth in the Final Four, which is being held just down the road in New Orleans.
That might seem preposterous even to the most positive-thinking purple-and-gold partisan. That would mean 14 wins in a row for a team that is the No. 6 seed in its own league tournament. The SEC is challenging enough that LSU is concerned just with winning its tourney opener against No. 11 seed Auburn on Thursday in Duluth.
Then again, winning six in a row in SEC play, as the Lady Tigers have done, once seemed pretty unlikely too. LSU took its lumps in nonconference play, with losses to Hampton, Georgetown, Tulane and Florida Golf Coast.
Then the Lady Tigers were 4-4 to start SEC play leading into "hell week" on the schedule: Texas A&M, Tennessee and Georgia in a seven-day span. All the games were in Baton Rouge, but that's a gantlet that could have crushed LSU.
It didn't, though. Despite losses to the Aggies and (in an agonizingly close game) to the Lady Vols, LSU rallied to take down Georgia on Feb. 10. It hasn't lost since.
The Lady Tigers now seem sure to get an NCAA tournament invitation, no matter what happens in Duluth. A month ago, it looked as if LSU would be hosting early-round games in the Maravich Center without the Lady Tigers playing.
The steady hand on the rudder during the rough times this season is Caldwell's … but she says she has had important help from the tiniest Tiger.
"Justice has been a blessing -- she's been amazing," said Caldwell, who says she refers to herself, her partner Justin Fargas and her mom as the trio of caretakers who form Team Justice.
"She makes everything better and puts everything into perspective. She's also made me not only a better woman, but I feel like I'm a better coach.
"I've always been able to coach other people's kids. Now having my own, I feel a different … I don't know … softness? You can kind of walk away from a loss a little sooner than normal. Because I have to go into mommy mode. When we struggled early, that taught me how to leave those losses and go forward. And our team has done just that."
A month ago, LSU didn't look to be an NCAA tournament team. But after six consecutive victories, not many teams are hotter heading into championship week.