For much of this month, LSU has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. Heading into this year’s NCAA tournament under the guidance of an interim coach, the Tigers are eager to get back to winning games.
With Bob Starkey taking over for Pokey Chatman, third-seeded LSU begins its attempt for a fourth consecutive Final Four appearance on Saturday night when it meets North Carolina-Asheville in a first-round matchup of the Fresno Regional at Austin, Texas.
Starkey was named coach after Chatman abruptly resigned on March 7 when allegations surfaced that she had improper relations with a former player while that player was still on the team.
Chatman posted a 90-14 record as LSU’s coach. Before that, she was 15-5 on an interim basis in 2003-04 when longtime coach Sue Gunter left the team because of lung cancer.
A Louisiana native, Chatman spent nearly two decades with the school as a player or coach.
Although Chatman originally cited unspecified career opportunities for her departure, a university source, on condition of anonymity, later said Chatman’s resignation stemmed from allegations by assistant coach Carla Berry in February that Chatman had improper contact with a former player.
Starkey said Berry would remain part of the coaching staff.
“Coach Berry is very, very well respected by our players, certainly by me, and she’ll continue to be a positive part of our program,” he said.
For the Lady Tigers (26-7) to make another Final Four appearance, they again will rely on center Sylvia Fowles. This season, the 6-foot-6 junior became the school’s all-time leader in blocked shots with 237, recorded the 1,000th point and rebound of her career, and was the first SEC player to average a double-double in conference play.
Fowles, also known as “Big Syl”, said her relationship with Chatman wouldn’t change regardless of the allegations surrounding her former coach.
“Pokey’s always been a great person, she’s like my mom and it’s going to stay that way from here on out,” Fowles said. “No matter what people say, I’m not going to look at her any different.
“She’s going to always keep up with us. She might not show up to the games, but I’m pretty sure she’ll be keeping up with us.”
Fowles set career highs this season by averaging 17.2 points and 12.8 rebounds. She pulled down 20 rebounds in a game four times this season, including in a 63-54 win over then-No. 2 Tennessee on March 3 in an SEC tournament semifinal.
LSU’s bid for the title ended the following night with a 51-46 loss to then-No. 13 Vanderbilt.
The Tigers easily handled North Carolina-Asheville (21-11) in the schools’ only meeting, 91-36 in 1999.
North Carolina-Asheville, the 14th seed, made the tournament by winning its first Big South tournament title, beating Radford 67-57 last Saturday behind Amanda Elder’s 16 points and nine rebounds.
Elder averaged 17.3 points and 9.7 boards en route to conference tournament MVP honors. The senior forward tops the Bulldogs with 12.5 points and 7.4 rebounds per game this season and has a team-leading 45 blocks.
The Bulldogs enter this tournament having won five in a row.
The winner of this contest will take on sixth-seeded Xavier or 11th seed West Virginia in the second round on Monday.