Lady Vols secure SEC win over LSU

DULUTH, Ga. - The Lady Vols delivered a comeback win over LSU in their SEC tourney opener - much to the delight to an arena full of Tennessee fans - after spotting the Lady Tigers a 15-point lead. Go inside for analysis and extensive postseason video coverage with players and Holly Warlick.

Tennessee (25-5) and LSU (19-12) seem to enjoy epic games whenever they clash on the court. Maybe it's because of the Pat Summitt-influenced sideline with Holly Warlick at the helm for the Lady Vols and Nikki Caldwell guiding the Lady Tigers.

Just 10 days ago, the Lady Vols built a 21-point lead in the first half against LSU in Baton Rouge, only to barely hold on for a 72-67 win.

On Friday in Duluth, Ga., in a quarterfinal game of two NCAA-tourney bound teams, the Lady Vols played old style Tennessee basketball of defense, board work and paint points for a 77-65 win over LSU.

Tennessee advanced to the semifinal against Texas A&M, which dispatched Auburn with ease. Tip time Saturday at The Arena at Gwinnett Center is 2:30 p.m. Eastern (TV: ESPNU), with South Carolina and Kentucky opening play at noon in semifinals of the top four seeds.

"I think this team has learned to be resilient," Warlick said. "They've got a mind-set right now that they're never out of a game. … They kind of bow up a little when they're behind."

Tennessee needed that resilience after falling behind by 15 points, 27-12 midway through the first half. LSU was 7-14 from the arc in the first half - Jeanne Kenney banked one in and laughed as she headed down court - while the Lady Vols were 0-5 from long range.

Tennessee absorbed multiple blows from LSU, turned the ball loose 12 times - several of the unforced variety from travel to stepping on the baseline - but somehow managed to trail by just six points, 34-28 at halftime.

Two freshmen were a critical part of a Lady Vol rally to draw closer to LSU in Mercedes Russell and Jordan Reynolds. A scramble for a loose ball somehow ended up with Reynolds scooping it up, dribbling behind her back and getting to the rim. Reynolds also had a block on a fast break and the ball ended up with Russell, who tipped the offensive rebound to herself to pull Tennessee to within 28-34.

Halftime meant a chance to regroup and discuss the defense, which needed an overhaul if the Lady Vols were to advance in a tournament filled with Tennessee fans.

"We talked a lot about our defense," Warlick said. "We gave up seven threes. You can't do that. I thought the second half we made them take difficult shots."

It was a team-wide effort, but one player in particular led the defensive charge - Andraya Carter. The redshirt freshman watched the tournament in this same arena a year ago while she recovered from shoulder surgery.

On Friday, she logged 33 minutes, tallied 10 points - most generated by steals - and grabbed five boards, including one that the 5-9 guard snatched away from the 6-5 Theresa Plaisance.

"Andraya is a competitor," Warlick said. "She leads by example. She loves the defensive end of the floor. She's extremely athletic. But she competes.

"She's been great for Jordan. Jordan sees how Andraya practices and Jordan steps up as well. I can't say enough about those two."

Carter and Reynolds ratcheted up the defensive intensity and were joined by senior Meighan Simmons. The ball pressure forced LSU to work for tougher shots - the Lady Tigers shot 50 percent from long range in the first half and 16.7 percent in the second - and Tennessee outscored LSU in the second half, 49-31.

"This group has come a long way, and they have shown that they are capable," said Caldwell of a team that closed the regular season with six losses but defeated Alabama to get to Friday's game. "I think it takes a lot of courage to come into an environment like this and be able to come out and display what they did, especially in the first half, and play this game very tough against a very good opponent."

The environment was a sea of orange fans who never lost faith in the Lady Vols and never let up on the officials. Players driving to the basket were granted fouls whether one occurred or not - it worked in LSU's favor for most of the game - and Tennessee flipped the game in the second half by abandoning the jump shot and getting to the paint.

Meighan Simmons started 1-11, finished 4-8 by getting to the paint and tallied 14 points, one of five double-figure scorers for the Lady Vols. She used her speed to get to the rim, and the senior guard is unstoppable - and un-catchable - in the open floor.

"Holly was telling me to get it on the defensive end, stay within the system," Simmons said. "I was very proud about how my teammates stepped up. They lifted me when I got down on myself, when I felt like I wasn't doing things right."

At one point in the second half, while LSU was getting ready to shoot a free throw, Bashaara Graves emphatically spoke to Simmons. Graves said it was to reaffirm that the Lady Vols would not lose the game.

Graves returned to beast mode in the postseason. The sophomore tallied 14 points and nine boards and was 8-11 from the line. She battled inside for 34 minutes and showed the game that made her SEC freshman of the year last season.

Graves and Isabelle Harrison, who had 12 boards, were part of the Tennessee domination on the glass, 48-30. Harrison completed the double-double with 21 points.

"Playing against LSU, it was tough," Harrison said. "We battled. I think our posts were standing strong."

Cierra Burdick was the fifth Lady Vol in double figures with 10 points and 11 boards. She kept the Lady Vols in striking distance after they went down 22-8 to open the game with her work on the offensive glass.

Tennessee won the game for three reasons: the Lady Vols stiffened their defense - to the tune of 25 points off 20 LSU turnovers to five points for LSU off Tennessee's 19 miscues; they reverted to the offensive plan to get the ball inside - 52 of the Lady Vols' 77 points came in the paint to 18 for LSU - and the coaching staff hit all the right notes in the substitution patterns.

Simmons logged 34 minutes but sat briefly three times in the first half to collect herself. Reynolds had three steals in 22 minutes and was key to the comeback. Russell was able to provide relief inside and had a key block and steal.

It was a Reynolds steal that led to a Simmons' layup and 55-55 tie after the Lady Vols had tied it at 43, only to see LSU score the next five points. Reynolds had gone coast-to-coast one play prior to that to pull the Lady Vols to 55-53 with 8:02 left.

When Harrison powered to the rim for a 57-55 lead, it was the first time Tennessee was ahead since 4-0 at the 18:35 mark of the first half.

With Ariel Massengale not cleared to play because of the program's concussion protocol, Warlick went to a primary rotation of seven players and also got very productive minutes out of Jasmine Jones, who grabbed four boards in five minutes.

Texas A&M coach Gary Blair stopped by the Tennessee writers' contingent on press row during the game and said the Lady Vols shouldn't take another jump shot. LSU could not stop them inside. That was precisely the game plan, and the Lady Vols executed it in the second half.

The Lady Vols also won for a fourth reason - they owned the boards. It was win fitting of Summitt - Friday was "We Back Pat" day in Duluth, and the Lady Vol coaches were in purple - in that Tennessee won with defense and board play.

A Lady Vol legend came into the locker room after the game in Chamique Holdsclaw - she lives in Atlanta - and a roar erupted from the players.

"It was a battle. It was a grind," Warlick said. "But proud of these young ladies. We finally stepped in and got stops when we needed to. It was a very good win for us.

GAME HIGHLIGHTS VIA UTSPORTSTV

SEC POST-GAME PRESS CONFERENCE

INSIDE TENNESSEE VIDEOS INTERVIEWS

Holly Warlick

Andraya Carter

Cierra Burdick

Bashaara Graves

Isabelle Harrison

Jordan Reynolds

Mercedes Russell

Meighan Simmons


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