But Tennessee (18-5, 9-1) pocketed a 64-62 win over LSU (13-10, 4-6) led by a resurgent senior, who threaded an in-bound pass among three defenders; a resourceful junior who poked free the ball to set up the winning play; and a resilient freshman who powered in the game-winning points and cemented her newcomer of the year campaign in the SEC.
Tennessee and LSU tend to wage epic battles, often in postseason, and the regular season games aren't for the faint of heart, either.
"Every time we play each other it's a battle," Coach Holly Warlick said. "I don't care where we play."
The 2013 matchup marked the first time Warlick and Nikki Caldwell faced off as head coaches.
"Nikki's doing a great job, and I know she needed this win but we both needed the win," Warlick said. "Nikki and I are great friends. I love her like a sister. I recruited her, I coached her. I got the opportunity to work with her.
"It's a little difficult, but when you cross that line we compete. We compete in everything we do and afterward we are great friends. It was a little bittersweet."
Caldwell will be hard-pressed to forget the late misses at the free throw line.
"This one will be bitter because we had a chance and we had the right people at the line," Caldwell said. "We had opportunities when we put the ball inside. We had the right people taking shots so we take ownership of this loss."
Twice the Lady Tigers were clinging to a lead and had the chance to boost it with one-and-one opportunities at the line.
Bianca Lutley and Theresa Plaisance, who had been clutch for LSU, missed the front ends – Lutley with 31 seconds left and LSU up 62-59 and Plaisance with 13 seconds left and a 62-61 lead – and the Lady Vols seized the second chances.
On its penultimate possession Tennessee got the ball and got fouled twice on the floor but didn't go to the line because the Lady Vols were not yet in the bonus.
When Cierra Burdick was fouled on a baseline shot off an in-bounds play following the second floor foul, there were just 7.1 seconds left in the game. She missed the first, looked crestfallen and then quickly recovered to swish the second and tie the game at 62.
"I thought when Burdick got fouled, she's one of our better free throw shooters, that she was going to make the two, and then I was just trying to figure out how to stop them," Warlick said.
LSU had seven seconds left to make a play and given how the Lady Tigers had shot the ball in the second half – 59.3 percent – a game-winning shot was certainly well within the realm of possibility.
"We honestly played a terrible defensive game," Burdick said. "We didn't stick to the game plan, as we should of. Our relentless pursuit to keep fighting is what got us this win."
LSU in-bounded the ball, and Meighan Simmons slipped up behind the play and poked the ball free as Lutley turned to head up court. Bashaara Graves gathered the loose ball and went to the rim, only to have the shot blocked out of bounds by Plaisance with 3.5 seconds left.
Tennessee had no timeouts – Warlick had used to them to get some rest for her players – so Kamiko Williams set up the in-bound play for the Lady Vols.
Williams was the perfect one to handle that task because she is patient, doesn't panic and will allow the play to develop. In this case, she stuck with it and somehow got a pass to Graves, who was blanketed by three defenders and muscled through them to get off a shot.
The ball hung on the rim and dropped through with Graves watching from the floor, as she had gotten tangled in Lady Tigers after the play.
"I just tried to power it through," Graves said on the post-game radio show. "I looked at it the whole time it was up there and said, ‘Please go in. Please go in.' "
Plaisance threw a 70-foot pass to Adrienne Webb, who was tracked by Ariel Massengale. Webb lofted a three, guarded closely by Massengale, and it rolled out. That set off a celebration on the Tennessee bench.
"It's huge," Graves said of the win. "We wanted to bounce back. Holly said to make this game be proof that Missouri was a fluke. We wanted to come out and just do the best we could.
"We still have a lot to work on and a lot of improvement to make. I think this is a great statement game to let everyone know that Tennessee isn't going to quit."
That Williams was even on the floor to make the in-bound pass to Graves was a surprise. The senior guard severely sprained her right ankle against Missouri and Warlick had said as recently as Tuesday that she didn't expect her to play.
"I was surprised," Warlick said. "I had no idea until today in shoot-around. She was running around and jumping on her ankle and it was fine. She gave us some huge minutes."
Williams did show some signs of the injury, particularly with the lift on her shots as she got blocked a couple of times in the paint, and that doesn't usually happen with her leaping ability.
But she was 2-3 from the arc, tallied eight points and grabbed six boards in 28 minutes of play. Williams is not credited with an assist in the box score, but it was her pass that led to the winning basket.
LSU had its own player logging a surprising number of minutes. Point guard Jeanne Kenney injured her knee in Monday's game but ended up playing 30 minutes with four points, five rebounds and five assists.
"With how banged up she is, that's a testimony to her competitive spirit," Caldwell said. "When we put Jeanne in, she gives us that leadership. She's very knowledgeable of the game so she can run multiple positions for us. She does a great job of getting the ball to her teammates and she is just solid."
LSU had a tremendous size advantage inside with the 6-5 Plaisance and the 6-4 Shanece McKinney, who moved into the starting lineup.
Graves, who played 32 minutes, and Burdick, who went 33 minutes and started for the first time since she broke her right hand, were the primary post defenders.
"Cierra and Bashaara hung tough," Warlick said.
Tennessee misses the inside presence of Isabelle Harrison, who is also a patient of Jenny Moshak's on Rehab Row. Moshak worked basically around-the-clock to get Williams back, and the hope is that Harrison will return this season. She had a torn meniscus in her left knee repaired a week ago.
In the meantime, Graves tallied 17 points, grabbed four boards and had four steals in what should become a runaway campaign for SEC Freshman of the Year. Her game-winning basket showed that not only can she produce, but she can do so in the clutch.
"Graves hit a huge shot for us," Warlick said. "It was a physical game. I thought it was back and forth. We would get up and then LSU would get back up. I just thought both teams played hard, and they competed.
"I'm sure it was a fun game to watch. It was tough to coach."
It was a typical Tennessee-LSU with both teams surging, answering runs and trying to make defensive stands. The lead changed 14 times.
Neither coach is likely to use the second half as a defensive tutorial. LSU shot 59.3 percent, but the Lady Vols were slightly better at 60 percent. The Lady Tigers shot 45.5 percent for the game, while the Lady Vols were at 49.1 percent.
Warlick shifted defenses from man to zone and back again, and tried to get Simmons loose in the open floor, despite the deliberate pace that LSU wanted to play.
"Credit to Tennessee in switching up their defense and really trying to get their transition game going," Caldwell said.
Simmons led Tennessee with 18 points on 8-15 shooting. She also had three assists, three steals and three boards. The scintillating performance came after she struggled at Missouri, particularly with patience on offense.
"We spent a lot of time with Meighan," Warlick said. "She's a great player. I told her the ball is going to find you."
Tennessee had 13 assists and showed a willingness to make extra passes to get open shots for teammates. The 16 turnovers were too many – particularly because too many were unforced – and the Lady Vols were nipped on the boards 33-30, but they also took advantage of 15 miscues by LSU and converted those into 22 points.
Caldwell will look at the film and cringe at the missed layups, especially in the first half, and those late squandered chances at the line.
"We had some tremendous play down the stretch to get us the lead," Caldwell said. "It's real simple, you make layups and free throws. We missed a lot of easy layups in the first and second half and obviously you have to nail those free throws."
Plaisance, who leads the SEC in scoring, led LSU with 20 points on 8-10 shooting. Lutley tallied 13 points, and Danielle Ballard added 10 points and five assists.
The two teams played to a 36-36 tie in the second half. The Lady Vols led 28-26 at halftime on a basket before the break by Burdick.
"It was an awesome win," Burdick said. "We like to say any SEC win is a great win because this league is so competitive especially on the road. For us we just had to keep fighting and pull it out when people thought the game was over. It speaks a lot for our character as a team.
"They always tell us not to give up and we didn't. I'm so proud of my teammates."
Game highlights from utsportstv
Cierra Burdick, Bashaara Graves