Moments after the LSU women’s basketball team had shocked Penn State in the second round of the NCAA Tournament Tuesday night, Lady Tiger point guard Danielle Ballard wasted little time updating her Facebook status.
Said Ballard, a former Memphis Central High star: “Winning this game was the best moment in my life. Can’t no one take that feeling away from me. Good WIN tonight!! Nobody believed in us, not even the president (of the United States Barack Obama).”
After LSU’s 71-53 loss to nationally-ranked Georgia in the quarterfinals of the Southeastern Conference tournament, the Lady Tigers essentially were on the outside of the NCAA tournament bubble looking in. But after earning an at-large berth to the field of 64 when the brackets were revealed last weekend, all the sixth-seeded Lady Tigers have done was make their presence felt during what undoubtedly has been a memorable freshman campaign for Ballard.
Playing in familiar territory in the Maravich Assembly Center, LSU built an 18-point second-half lead and withstood a furious late rally by No. 11 seed Green Bay in the opening round before hanging on for a 75-71 win behind Ballard’s 16 points on 6-of-9 shooting. Then against No. 3 seed Penn State in the second round, senior guard Adrienne Webb’s career-best 29-point outburst helped propel the underdog Lady Tigers to an emotional 71-66 win and a spot in the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 2008.
LSU (22-11) advanced to play No. 2 seed California (30-3) Saturday night at 10:30 p.m. CDT in the Spokane Region in Spokane, Wash. The LSU-Cal winner will play the winner of No. 4 seed Georgia versus top-seeded Stanford Monday night in the Elite Eight with a berth in the Final Four at stake.
According to Ballard, LSU’s win over perennial power Penn State erased the memory of Tennessee’s Bashaara Graves edging her in being dubbed SEC Freshman of the Year. Ballard, in fact, has publicly said in recent weeks that she believes she should have walked away with conference Freshman of the Year honors, given her assortment of accolades that includes being ranked second among SEC freshmen in scoring, rebounding, and field goal percentage. Additionally, the 5-foot-7 Ballard led the league in steals and became LSU’s all-time leader in steals in a regular season with 99.
“Yeah, it just shows I should have been Freshman of the Year, Ballard said earlier this week in telephone interview from Baton Rouge, La. “But going to the NCAA tournament, people are really getting a chance to look at me and have a second guess about me.”
Ballard, the Lady Tigers’ third-leading scorer, admittedly welcomes the challenge of playing on college basketball’s grandest stage. Among the reasons is that her entire high school career was spent starting for a Memphis Central team that was a fixture in the national rankings. Rated as the 25th overall prospect and No. 7-ranked point guard nationally by ESPN HoopGurlz for the class of 2012, Ballard guided the Lady Warriors to the Tennessee Class AAA state championship as a junior.
Fortunately for LSU, Ballard has been as good as advertised, given her contributions enabled her to rank among a number of key statistical categories this year for the Lady Tigers, most notably steals (first), rebounds (second), assists (third), and minutes played (third).
“She’s really stepped up this year,” Webb, LSU’s second-leading scorer, said of Ballard. “She didn’t play like a freshman this year. She’s been playing like she’s been playing college basketball for a few years now. She has come in and showed so much of what we haven’t seen in a while from a point guard. She plays on both ends of the floor. She has played a very big role. Without her, we wouldn’t be in this position.”
Now that LSU has reached the Sweet Sixteen for the first time in five years, Ballard is convinced anything can happen this weekend in the Pacific Northwest.
“Yes, definitely the sky’s the limit for this team,” Ballard said. “We have nothing to lose. We have to lay it all on the line.”
Even if the leader of the free world doesn’t give them a chance.