In what turned out to be a defensive showcase, one aspect that has almost nothing to do with defense (except in a positive manner) proved to be especially costly.
The No. 12 San Diego State women’s basketball team (25-7) almost matched up too perfectly, for its seeding, with No. 5 LSU (23-10) in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. With both teams entering the game holding opponents to less than 55 points per game, it would be a game predicted to come down to big stops down the stretch.
Instead, became a game that would come down to big shots; big shots, though, from the free-throw line. SDSU made just seven of its 20 free throw attempts, the Aztecs’ worst performance of the entire season in that category. Unfortunately, it would also occur during the final game of a tremendous, expectation-surpassing type season, as SDSU fell to LSU 64-56 on Sunday in Baton Rouge, LA.
As soon as the game inside the Pete Maravich Assembly Center tipped off, SDSU looked rattled by the 3,212 hostile Lady Tiger spectators. The Aztecs were not playing their usual style of play and were dominated inside early on.
“LSU fans did what LSU fans are supposed to do,” SDSU head coach Beth Burns said. “We fought and scrapped as hard as we could and they wouldn’t quit. I think they gave their team some juice to keep them in the game when we were fighting them.”
On many possessions, SDSU gave up too much space inside, allowing the athletic LSU forwards to take easy shots. The Lady Tigers scored six of their first seven field goals with easy layups and SDSU, down 17-9 with 11:29 left in the first half, seemed as if it wasn’t mentally prepared for the Big Dance.
“They did just such a good job of preventing us from getting into the paint the way we needed to,” Burns said.
The Aztecs, knowing a midnight flight back to San Diego was looming, instantly responded with two quick 3-pointers by sophomore guard Kiyana Stamps and junior guard Courtney Clements.
With LSU’s offense looking cold, SDSU took advantage and continued to roll with an 18-5 run. But the Lady Tigers ended the half with a quick 5-0 run, leaving the halftime score at 27-27.
SDSU started the second half on a 9-2 run and continued to hold a strong three-possession lead against LSU until the 10-minute mark. With 7:22 remaining, two free throws by forward LaSondra Barrett, who led the Lady Tigers with 17 points and 10 rebounds, tied the game up at 47 a piece.
“We’re a team, we push the ball …,” Clements said. “So they were going to the free throw line and kind of it slowed us down and kind of made us stagnant.”
For the Aztecs, it seemed to all go down-hill from there. SDSU, at one point, was held scoreless for almost seven total minutes. The Aztecs could not take advantage of several free-throw opportunities given to them.
“The irony for us is that we’re first in our league and a very good free-throw shooting team. We come in at about 74 percent and that’s a little frustrating on a night like tonight,” Burns said. “When (LSU) had to make plays, they made plays that were a little bit too much for us.”
SDSU allowed LSU to continue pulling away 58-51 with 1:12 remaining.
Clements banked a 3-pointer off the glass to close the deficit to 58-54, but LSU made its last six free throws to eventually earn the victory and advance to the second round of the women’s NCAA Tournament.
Clements led the Aztecs with 17 points and five rebounds, while junior guard Chelsea Hopkins scored 16 points to go along with seven assists. Both will be returning next year and both hope to make it further in the tournament.
The Aztecs have plenty to be proud of after this year with a record of 25-7, two Mountain West Championship banners. The team is also able to send off seniors Kalena Tutt and Sajoya Griffin off on a high note.
Despite the poor free throw shooting on Sunday, SDSU still knows the future is looking strong.
“For most of our team it’s the first time they’ve been to the NCAA Tournament,” Tutt said. “I know next year they’ll be able to knock (the free throws) down, when I’m not here, because now they have the experience.”