BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) -- In addition to being a first-year coach at LSU, Nikki Caldwell has recently become a first-time mom, making her a rather busy woman as the Lady Tigers head into the NCAA tournament.
Caldwell gave birth to her first child, a baby girl named Justice, less than two weeks ago, only two days after coaching her team to the finals of the Southeastern Conference tournament."We ask her every day: 'Coach, are you getting sleep?" forward LaSondra Barrett said Saturday, as the Lady Tigers prepared for their NCAA opener Sunday night against San Diego State. "She's there all the time, whenever we need her, so she's just a strong woman."The 39-year-old Caldwell did not miss a game this season, although she did start wearing sneakers instead of her trademark pumps. She again will be on the sideline when fifth-seeded LSU (22-10) meets the No. 12 seed Aztecs (25-6) in Baton Rouge.LSU is back in the tournament one year missing it for the first time in more than a decade, a result that led Hall of Fame coach Van Chancellor to step down. Caldwell, who thrived in three seasons as head coach at UCLA, and who had both played and coached under Pat Summitt at Tennessee, returned to the Southeastern Conference as Chancellor's successor.Success, however, did not come without a few stumbles. The Lady Tigers dropped from the rankings early in the season while losing three of their first six games, then endured a midseason slump in which they lost five of six. As Caldwell entered the later stages of pregnancy, LSU rattled off eight victories in 10 games to secure a solid seeding in the tournament.Caldwell spoke fondly of her experience coaching while being pregnant, and of the way her players supported her, some of them adopting pregame rituals in which they would high-five her and then her belly. The coach was also thankful that the pregnancy, as she put it, remained "on schedule.""It's kind of like you go through your first trimester, and that was non-conference. Second trimester was conference play, and then the madness came about 11 days ago," Caldwell said. "When you're able to come in and do something that you love and share it with these young ladies, it's truly a remarkable feeling."San Diego State coach Beth Burns said the way Caldwell handled her season was "remarkable," but hoped the Aztecs would gain at least one advantage out of it."I'm sitting next to her in a meeting this morning, saying, 'You had a baby 11 days ago. At least I hope I've watched more film than you," Burns said. "LSU was lucky to get her. She's going to do a terrific job here."At least Caldwell gets to stay at home, for the time being, as LSU opens tournament play on its own court. The Lady Tigers expect a solid, partisan crowd after head football coach Les Miles, head men's basketball coach Trent Johnson and head baseball coach Paul Mainieri each donated $1,000 to buy tickets for students.Burns noted that playing at LSU may not be ideal for the Aztecs, but that her team played well on the road all season en route to a Mountain West Conference title."If you're going to be a good basketball team you've got to win games away from home," Burns said. "We've learned how to embrace (a hostile) environment, and make it into a positive thing."LSU, meanwhile, also welcomed the return of Barrett, its leading scorer (12.5 points per game) and rebounder (6.9 per game), after she was knocked out of the Lady Tigers' SEC tournament final loss to Tennessee with a concussion. Caldwell said Barrett has had some of her best practices of the season in recent days."Right now I'm 100 percent. I'm ready to go. I'm back to normal," Barrett said. "I'm just excited being able to play again."