A crowd of 7,167 at the Bi-Lo Center in Greenville, S.C., savored the semifinal games of the 2005 SEC Women's Basketball Tournament. The orange faithful of Tennessee and the purple followers of LSU will return to the arena today for the game that will determine who takes the crown of tourney champion. Tennessee is looking for its 10th title, but first since 2000. LSU is seeking its third title to place with its first-ever regular season championship. The Lady Tigers and Lady Vols will tip off at 7 p.m. Sunday (espn2).
GAME ONE: No. 1 seed LSU vs. No. 4 seed Georgia. RESULT: LSU wins, 79-65.
Georgia, perhaps trying to swipe a page from the Alabama playbook, attempted a gimmick defense to stop LSU. It almost worked. With 2:13 remaining in the game, the Lady Bulldogs were within six points, 71-65.
But Georgia couldn't score again and couldn't stop LSU on the other end, and the Lady Tigers won by 14 points in a game that was much tighter than the final score indicated.
"I sinned tonight," Georgia coach Andy Landers said after the game. "I went to a junk defense, which is something that in 30 years of coaching I have never done. (Today), I need to get up early and go to church and renew my faith in man-to-man."
Alabama deployed a "junk" defense – a triangle and two – that nearly worked to perfection Friday, but the Crimson Tide lost by one point, 60-59, when a three-pointer was ruled a two-point shot after a video review. The defense lured other players into taking shots to avoid being beaten by Seimone Augustus, Sylvia Fowles and Temeka Johnson. That often left forward Florence Williams wide open. Against Bama she scored six points on 3-7 shooting. Against Georgia, Williams had eight points in the first half and finished with 16.
"Her being open wasn't a fluke," Landers said. "You choose your poison. You've got a kid out there who's 6'5 (Fowles) and that can bench press me. Do you want to go one-on-one with her? I don't."
Despite the scoring output by Williams and the usual suspects – Augustus had 22 points, Fowles, 12, and Johnson, 11 – Georgia still had a shot at winning behind the 33 points by freshman sensation Tasha Humphrey. She was 13-20 from the field and scored on short jumpers, from behind the arc (twice) and on an assortment of moves under and to the basket.
"Wow!" LSU coach Pokey Chatman said. "She can face up, she can put her back to the basket, she can hit the three, and she can take you off the dribble. Sometimes the best defense against that is to make her work just as hard on the defensive end and try to get some fatigued possessions out of her. She is a tremendous player."
Chatman has some tremendous players of her own, including the trio of Augustus, Johnson and Fowles. Augustus, the conference's player of the year, scored when LSU absolutely needed a bucket. Johnson, an All-SEC player, finished with 17 assists. Fowles, the SEC's Sixth Woman of the Year, had four blocks and altered several other shots.
"I think the most important thing was the fact that the LSU basketball team came out with a lot of energy and the ability to execute in the half-court offense," Chatman said. "And we had a point guard that ran her team tonight."
Johnson's assists were one shy of the tournament record held by former Lady Vol Dawn Marsh, who had 18 against Georgia in 1988.
"I just distribute the ball," Johnson said. "I can thank my teammates for the win because I just get them the ball, and they finish it."
Fellow point guard Loree Moore of Tennessee was impressed.
"That's a great performance," Moore said. "That's somebody leading her team and doing what she has to do and making sure she gets everybody involved. That's what she did from the beginning."
Georgia, 22-9, which started the season ranked in the top five, and ended it struggling for consistency, left the game knowing it could compete with the No. 1 team in the country.
"This game definitely gives us a boost of motivation," junior guard Alexis Kendrick said. "We know we are a pretty good basketball team, and we went into this game knowing we could win it."
"I think from a team standpoint we can take a lot away from this game," Humphrey said. "It shows how we can play. It's all about my team. LSU is a great team, but we were resilient and left everything out on the court."
But it was LSU, 29-1, that left with a win. And the reward is facing Tennessee for the tournament title tonight. LSU learned from its close call against Alabama. The final test comes now.
"We cannot expect to win when everyone brings their A game, and we bring our B or C game," Johnson said.
"This is tournament play for us," Augustus said. "This play prepares us for the NCAA Tournament."
GAME NOTES: LSU's Seimone Augustus, a junior, has started all 99 games of her collegiate career. Her 100th start will come tonight against Tennessee. Freshman Sylvia Fowles leads the Lady Tigers in rebounding with 9.1 a game despite coming off the bench. Augustus and senior Temeka Johnson played 40 minutes against Georgia. LSU's 79 points were the most given up by Georgia this season, exceeding the mark of 77 scored by Tennessee. LSU is 2-2 in the SEC tourney finals. Georgia guard Tasha Humphrey nearly single-handedly led her team in the first half, scoring 19 of the first 30 points. Her 33 points were a season and career high for the conference's freshman of the year. The last time the two teams faced in the postseason was last year in the NCAA Midwest Regional. LSU won, 62-60, to earn its first Final Four berth. Georgia is now 3-15 against teams ranked No. 1 in the country.
GAME TWO: No. 2 seed vs. No. 3 seed Vanderbilt. RESULT: Tennessee wins, 76-73.
Conventional wisdom says it's hard to beat a team three times in one season. But Tennessee, 25-4, bucked the odds and took out its bitter in-state rival in the semifinals of the tournament.
Tennessee led by as much as 10 in the second half but Vandy's three-point shooting – including five by walk-on Caroline Williams who now starts – kept the Commodores clawing until the end. The Lady Vols answered with their own long range bombs with all seven coming from senior Brittany Jackson (four) and junior Shanna Zolman (three). Combined they were 7-13 for 53.8 percent.
"I'm really proud of this team for finding a way to win against a team that played very, very well and ran their offense as well as anyone has against us," UT coach Pat Summitt said. "Probably the biggest disappointment was our lack of awareness of three-point shooters and how we defended the two stagger screens late in the game.
"We're fortunate to come out with a win, but that's what winners do is find a way to win. And this team's done that a lot this year. They've got a lot of character, a lot of heart and fight in them."
Vanderbilt, 22-7, had opportunities at the end to tie the game with another three – the Commodores hit 11-21 for 52.4 percent – but the shots didn't fall, and the Lady Vols summoned some defensive stops when they needed them the most.
"Down the stretch we did everything we needed to win the game," Vandy coach Melanie Balcomb said. "We were in position to win; it just didn't go in. I can't ask for anything more."
Vanderbilt senior Abi Ramsey was 5-9 from behind the arc and was left wide open on several occasions late in the second half.
"I think the shots developed as they started to get tired," Ramsey said. "It left me open to shoot the three-pointers. I know I had been given the green light so I took it. After about the second or third shot, I felt I just kept getting more and more."
But Tennessee came up with two key defensive plays near the end – a deflection by Tye'sha Fluker that led to a fast-break basket by Alexis Hornbuckle (who received a length-of-the-floor escort from Brittany Jackson to block the Vandy defender) and a block by Loree Moore on a three-pointer that would have tied the game.
"I thought those last defensive possessions were outstanding," Summitt said. "They tipped the basketball, Fluker comes out and makes a big stop, gives us a deflection. It was huge for us to do that, and the intensity was turned up. We've just got to figure out how to turn it up and keep it there."
The last minute of the game kept the crowd on its feet as Tennessee didn't secure the victory until Fluker backed away from the basket with the ball with two seconds left to let time run out.
"I knew there was some time," Fluker said. "I didn't want to score and give them a chance. I was just thinking let the time run out."
Summitt re-inserted Moore into the game at the end – she played less minutes because of the shooting performance of guards Jackson and Zolman and the overall game of Hornbuckle – to ratchet up the defensive pressure.
"We went with our switching man defense," Summitt said. "I thought we maintained good ball pressure and obviously got deflections. That was key to get deflections. It was a situation where we had to take care of the basketball. I was just proud of our defense for holding ground at that time.
"When they had to make stops, they made stops. They came up with big plays. I like that in them. I don't necessarily like that when I'm going through it, but I like it when it's over, and we walk off with a win."
"Brittany and Zo were hot," Moore said. "But whenever I was called on I made sure that I did my job."
It's postseason so that means Tennessee better bring its defense and rebounding. UT once again won the battle of the boards, 32-28, but more importantly the Lady Vols snared 13 offensive rebounds compared to seven for Vandy.
"I thought that we did a great job getting on the boards and keeping it alive," Summitt said. "I really thought that Alexis did a good job tonight. The offensive glass, that's been a trademark of our program for years and not giving up as many offensive boards. I thought Alexis really made big plays for us tonight. She was tentative in the game (Friday), and I just told her, ‘Big-time players have to step up in big games.' She's stepped us for us a lot this year, and she really came through big for us."
Hornbuckle, a freshman guard who can play point, wing or small forward, shook off any signs of being tentative in her second postseason game and scored 14 points on 7-10 shooting. She also had seven assists and four rebounds.
"Today in shoot-around coach pulled me over to the side and said I needed to have an attitude when I play. Instead of having an attitude with her I needed to have one with the other team," the ever-candid Hornbuckle said in the post-game press conference as Summitt smiled and shook her head. "So I tried to do that. That was my main focus, just to come out and play hard. I wanted to put a little swagger in my game."
Hornbuckle is starting in place of Jackson because the freshman plays outstanding defense. But Jackson has been rather unflappable this season – as a starter or substitute – and has made it clear she just wants to win.
"Brittany is playing like a very inspired senior," Summitt said. "I respect her. We took her out of the lineup here to go with Alexis on the defensive end. She's handled everything this year and been a great teammate. I can see a difference in her. I think there's a different look in her eye. These three seniors know this is it, this is it for them.
"There's a different approach for seniors generally speaking, and this class is certainly no different. I think they know that they have to get ready to make a run in March, and we want to start right here. Brittany's done a great job. Really happy for her and proud of how she's handled her role."
Zolman and Jackson uncorked a few threes that were well within NBA range.
"A couple of those …. one I was screaming no," Summitt said of Jackson. "I wasn't even sure she was across half-court when she threw the shot up there. But I finished with ‘good shot.' "
After the game, Jackson credited the post players.
"The post was doing a good job of kicking it out and looking for us, and they were falling," Jackson said. "How we play together, it opens up shots."
A post player was simply amazed by Jackson and Zolman.
"Awesome. I don't have any other word for it," Fluker said. "They just knocked down open shots. They knocked down shots when they weren't open. You can't get any better than that. You can't ask for any more than that."
Tennessee added a fourth player to the double-digit scoring column in Shyra Ely, who had 11.
"That's just our team," Zolman said. "We expect multiple people to be in double figures, because we're not a one-dimensional team by any means. We come being able to have a great inside game and a great outside game and being able to be very equally balanced on both aspects of that and to do a very good job with that. That way people can't just key on one specific player."
GAME NOTES: Tennessee beat Vandy earlier in the season by scores of 79-65 (Nashville) and 72-63 (Knoxville). Vandy guard Dee Davis tied her season high with 11 assists. Vandy guard Abi Ramsey entered the game with 1,003 career points. Tennessee will play Sunday in its 16th SEC tourney final game. UT's SEC Tournament record overall is 45-6 and 16-6 in the semifinals. The Lady Vols are 10-5 in the championship game.