BATON ROUGE, La. — As 5-foot-9 point guard Danielle Ballard walked off a podium inside Louisiana State’s basketball headquarters, she smiled bashfully and grabbed the back of her leg, complaining of a cramp while teammate Theresa Plaisance called her “grandma.”
Painful as the cramp might have been, Ballard couldn’t wipe the smile off her face as she hobbled toward the locker room – not after the explosive, all-court performance she delivered in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Ballard scored 24 points and grabbed 17 rebounds, and LSU led wire-to-wire in a 98-78 victory over Georgia Tech on Sunday.
“Ballard just played like a woman possessed,” LSU coach Nikki Caldwell said. “When you have your point guard playing with that type of attitude, that mentality, it filters throughout our team. So she did set the tone for us, that we can be aggressive against their pressure.”
Plaisance added 21 points and DaShawn Harden 17 for the Tigers (20-12), who picked an opportune time to set a school record for most points in a tournament game and reach their highest point total of the season.
“That was a totally different team that I saw today than the last 10 games on film,” Georgia Tech coach MaChelle Joseph said of LSU.
Seeded seventh in the Louisville region, the Tigers had the benefit of opening a third consecutive NCAA Tournament on their home court, where they are now 17-3 all-time in tournament games. LSU led by as much as 20 in the second half en route to winning its 16th consecutive first-round game, dating back to 1997. The Tigers also improved to 9-0 all-time in first-round games played on their home court.
LSU’s performance stood in stark contrast to its previous 10 games, eight of which it lost.
“This isn’t the same LSU team you saw two weeks ago,” Plaisance said. “We’ve completely transformed ourselves.”
LSU next plays Tuesday night, again at home, against second-seeded West Virginia. It remains to be seen whether freshman reserve guard Raigyne Moncrief will play after injuring her left knee in the second half against Georgia Tech. Her knee buckled and she was helped off the court, and Caldwell said the injury would re-evaluated today.
Sydney Wallace and Tyaunna Marshall each scored 20 for 10th-seeded Georgia Tech (20-12), but 6-foot-5 Nariah Taylor, who had 11 points, was limited by foul trouble, and LSU outrebounded Tech 57-30.
Marshall, a senior who ended her career as Tech’s all-time scorer, lamented that much of her scoring came too late to make a difference.
“When shots aren’t falling I try to do more than just play offense. I like to play defense and try to rebound, too,” she said. “But I wish I could have been more of a threat for my team in the opening minutes.”
Shanece McKiney scored 14 points for LSU and Jeanne Kenney had 11 points.
Kaela Davis had 16 points for Georgia Tech, which came in having scored 90 or more in seven games this season, while LSU had not previously surpassed 87.
Yet the Tigers surprised the Yellow Jackets by beating them at their own up-tempo game.
“They kept getting exhausted and we just kept trying to continue doing what’s best for us, and that was to push down on offense and keep getting them tired,” Ballard said. “We were running each and every day in practice, so we were in better shape than they were. So I felt like we had the upper hand.”
LSU broke the game open in the second half with a 17-5 run that opened with Harden’s 3. Plaisance had eight points during the surge, including an alley-oop layup on a no-look, one-handed lob from Kenney.
Harden capped the run on a breakaway layup after she stole the ball from Aaliyah Whiteside, making it 83-63 with 7:40 left.
Tech never got closer than 14 after that.