BATON ROUGE, La. - The big question coming into the NCAA tournament was how the LSU Lady Tigers would recover from the abrupt resignation of immensely popular coach Pokey Chatman.
Three lopsided victories and one resilient comeback later, the discussion about LSU's postseason has completely changed.
As LSU traveled on Thursday to Cleveland for its Final Four matchup with Rutgers, the focus had clearly shifted from wondering whether career assistant Bob Starkey could be effective in his head coaching debut to whether this increasingly dominant Lady Tigers squad would bring a first women's basketball national championship back to Baton Rouge.
"We're focused and we're playing our best basketball at this point," said Sylvia Fowles, the 6-foot-6 center whose dominance has highlighted LSU's recent play. "I think it's going to get better from here on out."
Although the Lady Tigers (30-7) came up short in the Southeastern Conference tournament finals against Vanderbilt, there were signs that LSU was peaking shortly before Chatman resigned amid allegations she had inappropriate relationships one or more former players.
First came a convincing victory over Tennessee in the SEC tournament semifinals, redemption for a loss to the Lady Vols in Baton Rouge a few weeks earlier. On Monday night, LSU redeemed a one-point home loss to Connecticut by dismantling the Huskies in the Fresno Regional final, 73-50.
In their other three NCAA tournament games, LSU beat North Carolina-Asheville by 38, West Virginia by six and Florida State by 12. West Virginia was the only team that threatened to beat the Lady Tigers, leading by 11 in the second half.
Even in that game, LSU's dynamic inside and perimeter attack erased a double-digit deficit in short order. Shooting guard Qiuanna Chaney hit two 3-pointers and Fowles scored six points inside in a 12-0 run that put the Lady Tigers in position to fend off WVU.
The resolve that fueled that comeback, as well as the relentless, full-court performance that kept UConn down by double digits for nearly an entire game, prompted Starkey to proclaim that his players "have inspired me more than I've inspired them."
"They took the lead. I wish I could tell you I gave them a great talk or something," Starkey said. "They came out and played hard and played well and played together. They're the story."
While Fowles has been LSU's most dominant player, leading the team in scoring, rebounding and blocks, she finds herself part of a team that may be tougher to scout than the previous three Final Four squads led by Simone Augustus.
Fowles is not the only scoring threat. Point guard Erica White scored 17 in the SEC semifinal victory over Tennessee. Chaney had a team-leading 22 points in the triumph over Florida State last weekend.
The Lady Tigers have been shooting with confidence from outside, including 45.4 percent from 3-point range during the NCAA tournament. That included a 7-of-10 performance against UConn that punished the Huskies for overloading defenders on Fowles, who scored 23 points and had 15 rebounds in that game anyway.
Now they turn their attention to Rutgers (26-8), whose coach, C. Vivian Stringer, isn't counting on Chatman's absence making LSU any less difficult of an opponent at this time of year.
"It's obvious to me that the players really respect coach Starkey," Stringer said. "It's a good thing he is an X and O person because I believe if you're not technically sound, players will soon expose you and they don't have any respect. ... He's not just a recruiter or anything like that; he knows the game."
The Lady Tigers "have a lot of motivation," Stringer added. "Because they have that kind of motivation, and with (Starkey's) leadership, it doesn't seem to me they're rattled at all."
comments powered by Disqus