The Lady Vols overcame a double-digit deficit but put LSU on the line with less than four seconds left and fell to the Tigers, 57-56, in Baton Rouge on Sunday. Go inside for game analysis.
Tennessee (16-11, 7-7) started the game against LSU (9-18, 3-11) with low energy, recovered after halftime to take the lead – thanks to a scoring flurry by Diamond DeShields – but missed free throws in the final minute and then put LSU on the line with 3.4 seconds left.
“We need to make free throws, and the game doesn’t happen the way it did,” Coach Holly Warlick said. “It is what it is.”
Tennessee led 56-55 after LSU made a layup but fouled Mercedes Russell as she moved into defensive position with 4.5 seconds left. In hindsight, the Lady Vols would have been better off had the whistle not blown, because it stopped the clock.
Russell misfired on both free throws, and then Andraya Carter fouled LSU’s Alexis Hyder as she grabbed the board. Hyder hit both, and Carter’s last-minute shot fell well short.
“We didn’t play smart to end the game,” Warlick said.
Te’a Cooper and Kortney Dunbar accounted for all of Tennessee’s points in the first quarter with seven from Cooper and three from Dunbar. But Cooper’s hot start was short-circuited after she missed her next nine shots and finished 3-15 from the field.
“The game can come to her,” said Warlick, who liked Cooper’s aggressive mentality on offense. “But if she’s going to shoot 15 times, her shooting percentage has to get better.”
DeShields had a rough start with two turnovers in the first quarter in one minute of play in her first two offensive possessions. Tennessee needs DeShields’ offense in the lineup, but the decision-making on passes is baffling at times, and the redshirt sophomore ended up on the bench.
After the game, DeShields said, “I wasn’t impacting the game the way I know I can. I was pissed off.”
DeShields returned in the second quarter and made an athletic move to the rim to trim the lead to 28-16. That was followed by a charge call – the LSU player was moving and slid into her – and another turnover. She ended the second quarter with a pinpoint pass to Bashaara Graves to go into halftime trailing by 10 points, 28-18.
Tennessee had 10 turnovers before the break and was outscored in the paint, 16-10. The Lady Vols had just two assists on eight made baskets.
Alexa Middleton and DeShields started the third quarter, and DeShields scored the Lady Vols first five points to trim the lead to 28-23. Mercedes Russell tied the game at 30 on a nice feed from Middleton and a DeShields’ jumper put the Lady Vols ahead, 32-30.
But thanks to back-to-back threes by LSU – one from the corner and the second off a three – the Lady Vols trailed by two at the end of the third quarter, 39-37. However, in stark contrast to the first 20 minutes, the Lady Vols had five assists on seven made baskets in the third quarter.
Tennessee appeared to be back in control late in the fourth quarter while maintaining a slim lead because of an improved defense. The halftime discussion centered on players moving without the ball and elevating the defensive intensity.
The Lady Vols achieved those two objectives and took the lead in the fourth quarter. But the missed free throws down the stretch kept the door open for LSU and then the foul on the missed free throw allowed the Tigers to take an improbable win.
Tennessee’s regular season ends with games at Alabama and then Georgia at home, both of which are playing well of late.
The Lady Vols have had team chemistry issues all season and it was especially evident on Sunday in Baton Rouge. Saturday’s practice wasn’t good, and the start of Sunday’s game showed it. Substitutions did nothing to shake the doldrums.
“It’s a mind-set,” DeShields said. “You can feel it in warmups. It didn’t feel right. We’re not in any position to feel comfortable.”
Tennessee has talented players, though injuries have been an issue. Middleton returned from an ankle injury and tallied five points and three assists. She was especially adept at getting the ball inside.
“I thought she was solid,” Warlick said. “She battled.”
Middleton was joined by several teammates with that mind-set after halftime.
“We didn’t play hard until our backs were against the wall,” Warlick said.
And therein lies the problem. With two games left in the regular season, the Lady Vols still haven’t found a combination of players who will play hard all the time. The turnovers continue to pile up with 18 against LSU, most of which were unforced from stepping on the sideline to firing passes directly to Tigers, or worse, to no one in particular.
DeShields played under control and offensively aggressive after halftime – she tallied 19 points – and it made Tennessee a much better team, but it wasn’t enough to stave off another gut-wrenching ending for the team.
“I thought she was attacking the basket, and she was taking shots that Diamond can make,” Warlick said. “She decided she wanted to play, and she was a bright spot for us today.”
Warlick’s answers were relatively short in her post-game interview. She noted that Carter did foul on the last play and congratulated LSU on the win.
“They don’t look at their record,” Warlick said. “They just play basketball as hard as they can.”
The implication was clear – Tennessee plays hard when it wants to. Add the turnovers and missed free throws, and it’s a recipe for another loss.
“I can’t put it any simpler than that,” Warlick said.
The loss will weigh heavily on the Lady Vols as they slipped to ninth in the league – a win would have created a seven-team tie for fourth place in a bunched-up SEC – and will likely fall out of the AP top 25.
“We still have time to turn this around,” DeShields said. “It’s going to take team effort.”
It also will take the effort that DeShields showed in the second half. While the redshirt sophomore still deals with lower leg issues, that injury doesn’t explain the quick turnovers that are errant passes.
“My mistakes put me on the bench, and I think it was to my team’s detriment,” DeShields said.
Diamond DeShields and Bashaara Graves