SDSU will open tournament against LSU

by Ruben Meza

The Aztecs celebrated both Mountain West regular season and tournament championships this season before earning its NCAA Tournament trip. SDSU will play LSU on Sunday in Baton Rouge. | Antonio Zaragoza, Photo Editor

When a team is given one option, and one option only, there’s a ton of pressure put on its shoulders. The San Diego State women’s basketball team has played the entire season knowing if it failed to eventually win the Mountain West Conference tournament, its season would be cut short. The only things being cut short, however, were the nets inside the Thomas and Mack Center last Saturday with a conference championship victory.

The Aztecs earned themselves an automatic bid into the NCAA Women’s basketball tournament, a sudden death, single-elimination tournament that provides comparable pressure that SDSU (26-6) has felt all season long.

The Aztecs gathered inside of the Fowler Athletics Center auditorium on Monday to watch where its March journey would begin. SDSU was given a No. 12 seed in the Kingston Regional where it will meet No. 5 seed LSU in Baton Rouge. The winner will face either No. 4 seed Penn State or No. 13 seed University of Texas-El Paso. If the Aztecs can survive each, SDSU will more than likely meet No. 1 seed Connecticut in the Sweet 16.

Its first-round opponent, LSU (22-10), plays for first-year head coach Nikki Caldwell who previously coached at UCLA and has a relatively close relationship with SDSU head coach Beth Burns.

“She gets after it,” Burns said. “She’s a defensive minded coach and we’re going to have to be ready.”

The Tigers may play without their leading scorer and rebounder, LaSondra Barrett, who was knocked unconscious in the SEC Championship game almost midway through the second half. Barrett, an All-SEC first-team member, was sent to the hospital and LSU ultimately fell to the Tennessee Volunteers 70-58.

LSU has plenty of solid players who can make up for her absence, but the Aztecs rely on their bench just as much and match up well at each position.

“We have great depth and we know we can use them at any time; we get really excited and happy when the freshmen come in and contribute,” junior guard Chelsea Hopkins said. “It definitely plays to our advantage when me or Courtney can be out there for 25 minutes opposed to 37 a game because of them.”

The SDSU starting lineup compiled the least amount of minutes out of all the teams in the MW, but Burns has a lot planned for Hopkins.

“You can have lots of talented players on your team, but basketball is a symphony, it takes a leader, not necessarily a coach, but one on the floor … and we have a great one to use.”

Two years ago, SDSU made it to the Sweet 16. And three years ago Hopkins, the MW Newcomer of The Year, watched her former team, Duke, end the Aztecs’ tournament run. Watching that game, Hopkins was impressed with Burns’ style of play along with the young group of players she could eventually lead, and she has done just that since transferring.

Hopkins finished the season ranked in the top 10 nationally in assists per game and was named the MW Tournament MVP, but she still has more things in mind than all the accolades.

 

The SDSU women’s basketball team celebrated the announcement of its NCAA seeding on Monday. | Peter Kluch, Senior Staff Photographer

The SDSU women’s basketball team celebrated the announcement of its NCAA seeding on Monday. | Peter Kluch, Senior Staff Photographer

 

“We want to make a run in the tournament for our most loyal fans,” Hopkins said. “We want to perform and represent San Diego State and everybody that has been with us from start to finish. I think we can compete with anybody.”

ESPN projected the Aztecs as a 14 seed in the Spokane region, but Burns doesn’t mind having to travel southeast and even took it as somewhat of a compliment.

“I wasn’t overwhelmingly surprised, I was pleased that we moved up two seed lines,” MW Coach of the Year Burns said. “I think it was more of a reward of how we’ve been hunted all season, and that we won convincingly.”

Burns admitted that she already began researching SDSU’s projected opponents, but with a slightly higher than expected seed, she now has to get back in the film room with a different outlook.

The Aztecs will also have to prepare for the home court advantage given to the Lady Tigers who have a strong fan base that averaged 4,458 per game.

MW Player of the Year junior guard Courtney Clements doesn’t seem to mind, and even goes as far as embracing it.

“Any fans are good, whether they’re for us or not,” Clements said. “I’d rather have the stands filled up even if there isn’t anyone there for (SDSU); the atmosphere builds up and our adrenaline will kick in either way.

“We’ve never played them, they’ve never played us,” she added. “Nobody has an advantage.”

If they want to make a run, that’s the mindset the underdog Aztecs will need throughout the tournament, which will begin at 4:45 p.m. next Sunday in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.