Tennessee drops semifinal game to LSU

DULUTH, Ga. – The player that gave the most effort Saturday in Tennessee's SEC semifinal loss to LSU said afterwards that the only acceptable response was to "get back in the gym and work that much harder." Alexis Hornbuckle, who shattered her career high by scoring 29 points, left the SEC Tournament knowing she had given it her best shot. The players who didn't shouldered the blame for the loss.

The mood in Tennessee's locker room after the 63-54 loss to LSU was one of frustration, disappointment and anger. Alexis Hornbuckle, who was cited by her coach and her teammates for her overall effort, noted that the Tigers had the benefit of wanting something that had been denied to them. Tennessee used that same motivation to win the tournament the past two years.

"Like I told y'all in Tennessee before we even came down here, it's going to be pressure and I said the underdog always has the (edge)," Hornbuckle said. "They always have that extra motivation. Yes we outright won the SEC but that doesn't mean nothing. We wanted the tournament as well. We came up short with that."

But Hornbuckle, despite the fact the loss had just happened and with her face showing her disappointment, realized that the same scenario could now help Tennessee.

"It also helps us out, I think, to get back in the gym and motivate us to work on our weaknesses," she said.

LSU, 26-6, beat Tennessee, 28-3, on the boards and in the paint on both ends of the floor. The Tigers came into the game wanting to avenge a loss to the Lady Vols on their home floor in Baton Rouge less than two weeks ago.

"I can definitely relate," Hornbuckle said. "They know they needed this game. They know they needed this tournament to help them in the NCAA seeding-wise and just for revenge. Revenge is a sweet thing, and we didn't want to give it to them, but they out-worked us. They came out here with a bigger attitude for 40 minutes, and we didn't match it when we needed to."

Hornbuckle, however, doesn't need to hang her head. She is a team player and knows games are won and lost as a group, but she did bring attitude and intensity.

She scored a career-high 29 points on 12-18 shooting – her previous high was 19 points – and pulled down nine rebounds, the most of anyone for Tennessee in the game. She got one board over the taller post players by slipping in front of them and then managed to call timeout before she fell out of bounds with the ball. She also had three steals, two assists and one block.

"I definitely feel like I left it out on the floor," Hornbuckle said. "Every possession I made it a point, whether it was offense or defense, to not have a mental breakdown. I know I had a couple. I try to make it up with the next defensive or offensive possession. I know how bad LSU wanted this game."

LSU was led by Sylvia Fowles with 19 points and 20 rebounds. She had scoring help from Erica White with 17 points and Allison Hightower with 12. Fowles' 20 boards were the second-most ever by a Tennessee opponent. The record of 21 is held by Linda Street set in 1978 when she played for Memphis State (now the University of Memphis).

Tennessee jumped out to a 15-4 lead and appeared to have LSU reeling, but the Tigers crept back into the game and Tennessee, except for Hornbuckle, went cold from the field after opening the game shooting a scorching 70 percent.

"We came out with a swagger," Hornbuckle said. "We came out with the attitude, and it showed the first 10 minutes. After that they started matching ours and making a run, and we never answered their runs. With a team like that you know they're streaky; you know they're going to make runs. They're competitive, and they played with a lot of heart. We needed to answer their runs, and we never did that. They did exactly what was needed of them."

Hornbuckle hit a three-pointer to restore Tennessee's lead in the first half, 29-28, but then Fowles hit a short jumper to put the Tigers back on top, 30-29, with 3:05 left in the first half. They led 34-29 at halftime, and although Tennessee chopped that to two points six minutes into the second half – 38-36 at the 14:09 mark – LSU never let Tennessee tie or take the lead and built the margin to 12 points, 53-41, with 5:55 to go.

LSU got its points primarily by feeding the ball to Fowles, who got to the middle of the floor and deep in the paint repeatedly.

"We got whipped right down the middle," Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt said. "They were just better. They had a post game. We didn't have a post game consistently."

Candace Parker scored a season-low four points and was 2-11 from the field. Nicky Anosike managed to generate some offense – she had nine points on 4-9 shooting – but Sidney Spencer was 2-11 and Shannon Bobbitt was 0-4. Subtract Hornbuckle's inspired offensive effort and Anosike's shots, and the other three starters were 4-26 from the field. Tennessee's only points off the bench were on a three-pointer by Cait McMahan.

As a team Tennessee shot 37.5 percent and were out-rebounded, 34-29. LSU forced Parker away from the basket and made her go to her face-up game instead of her post-up game, which had been dominant of late. Parker had just six rebounds with none coming on offense.

"I think I have to start this press conference with the effort that we gave defensively and our ability to really carry out a scouting report defense that starts with trying to limit some of the touches by Candace and also get to their shooters," LSU Coach Pokey Chatman said. " … We were fortunate enough to have the defensive effort throughout and not lose offensive momentum when Tennessee changed their defense. They went to a little zone. We still executed. They thought of switching screens, we still executed. All-out good effort both intelligently and effort-wise."

Summitt said Tennessee tried to vary its defensive looks, but Fowles kept getting low position.

"We switched from our man to our zone and tried to change our defense as much for confusion as efficiency in what we were doing," Summitt said. "Because we weren't that efficient in either one, but I thought if we could keep them a little bit all balance by changing defenses … but they did a terrific job.

"What she does is she gets position so much of the time right in front of the rim. They do a great job in their high-low action of putting her in a great position to catch and score. If you don't deny the middle of the floor they can do that, and we had too many possessions where we allowed them to get the high-low action, and that's why I said they beat us right down the middle.

"Down the middle we just weren't as strong as LSU. White just flat-out played our point guards, and Fowles just flat-out played our inside game, and it was hard to stop."

The Tennessee players were peeved with their performance post-game and enumerated their own shortcomings. They were, however, willing to give a shout-out to their opponent.

"It was our own fault," Spencer said. "I thought they played well. They were more intense. They beat us at every position. We couldn't stop them."

Added McMahan, "You've got to give it to LSU. They came in, they did everything right. Their shots were falling. We just didn't have the shooting night we wanted to."

One of Summitt's commandments is to not let offensive struggles affect defensive play. That one was violated in this game.

"Tonight it affected us," Summitt said. "We're not making shots, and we're not excited about playing defense. And when I say that, I don't think it affected Alexis. I don't think it affected Nicky. But I think a lot of other people on the floor it affected."

Parker, who won the MVP award in this tournament last year, leaves Duluth with 14 points in two games. After the way she had been playing in the month of February her performance in March was surprising. But her coach was ready to cut her some slack and acknowledge the fact that she had been carrying the team.

"I think it was very physical," Summitt said. "She probably got frustrated. She's human. She's carried a tremendous amount of responsibility game in and game out and tonight she just didn't establish the inside game and go at people the way that she has consistently. I think she'll learn from it. She knows what she has to do, and she knows we go as she goes so much of the time.

"You can say, ‘Why did this happen tonight?' I don't know. But I do know that this can't happen in postseason if we want to keep playing."

Parker took a hard fall in the first half when she went up to try to block a shot by Fowles and landed directly on her lower back. She stayed down for a few seconds but then got up and appeared to be OK.

"I don't think so," Summitt said when asked if the fall affected Parker's play. "She's tough enough. If she is bothered by it she usually will let me know. But she's played through a lot of tough falls. She's a great player. We're not going to look at Candace Parker and say, ‘How can Candace Parker play this way?' She's human.

"But she knows what she has to do in postseason, and I have all the confidence in the world that that's exactly what she'll do. She'll step up and take ownership and tell this team, ‘I can't do this again, and I won't do this again.' "

Parker was downcast in the locker room and quietly answered questions.

"We just stopped playing defense," Parker said. "We stopped attacking offensively."

When asked what LSU did to take her out of her game, Parker replied, "Nothing, it was me. I was just not playing my game. LSU is a very good defensive team. I feel like it was me. I was rushing my shots. I feel like our team was rushing our shots. You can't do that."

So how does the team respond to the loss?

"We've got to go to work," Parker said. "We've got to practice, and we've got to bring it."

Summitt did manage a smile when asked when the next practice session will be held.

"Don't ask me tonight. I might tell you (we'll practice) tomorrow," Summitt said.

Summitt was kidding. The team spent the night in Duluth on Saturday and planned to return to Knoxville on Sunday. They will take the day off Sunday and considering the team's need for some restorative time for their bodies Summitt will likely find some additional days off this week.

It will be eight days before the NCAA brackets are announced, and Tennessee won't take the floor again in a game for two weeks. The Lady Vols came into this tournament with a number one seed seemingly locked up. The question now is where will they go.

"Well I don't think we're going to lose the number one seed with what we've accomplished," Summitt said. "We just lost a game to a team that played very well and seemed from top to bottom to be more inspired to take this one than we were. That's probably the biggest disappointment, but we've proven ourselves as to who we are and what we deserve. But losing is not any fun. … I don't stew over this game. I start getting ready for postseason."

LSU will meet Vanderbilt in the SEC tourney title game on Sunday after the Commodores crushed Georgia, 81-56, in the second semifinal game. It will be LSU's third straight trip to the title game. In the last two – when LSU was the regular season champion – Tennessee won the tournament trophy.

"We're just going to enjoy this (win over Tennessee) for the last few moments, last few minutes, take it back, reenergize and bring the energy (Sunday)," White said.

LSU will have a revenge motive in that game also. Vanderbilt beat the Tigers last week in Nashville. It was one of four losses in February for LSU, including one on the road to Georgia and two at home to UConn and UT.

"There's not a lot of shame in the teams you lost to," Chatman said. "(What) goes unmentioned was Ashley Thomas. She was not with us (for those games, except Georgia). She played 11 minutes against Connecticut. She doesn't score a lot of points, but she just helps you defensively. She knows where to go. She helps you offensively because she can set that solid screen that's going to lead to someone helping and having a shot for a shooter, all those coach things that we love. So it's nice having her back. She gave us some solid minutes.

"That's why we schedule those games. You hope you can learn from them, and I think we did."

Thomas provided 19 minutes off the bench against Tennessee and tallied two points, two assists and a block.

Summitt was disappointed in the play of her bench.

"We didn't get much off of our bench in terms of being productive and making a difference," Summitt said.

Summitt also expressed disappointment in the play of the point guards and had to put Hornbuckle at the point some in the second half. McMahan came in in the first half when Bobbitt picked up two fouls and did some good things – including nailing a three-pointer – but both guards let the shot clock get too low.

"I think our offense was just slow developing," Spencer said. "I don't know why we were getting down (so deep in the shot clock), but I know when we were we could always call on Alexis, and she would create a good look for herself, and she was scoring well. That's something we can take from this game."

Bobbitt took the blame for the offensive sputtering.

"Coming from the point guard standpoint I didn't feel like I got us in our offense quick enough," Bobbitt said. "I wasn't (always) aware of the shot clock, and I definitely blame myself for that, and I will learn from that.

"I take every opportunity you can get to learn and learn from everything you do. We just didn't come out and play for 40 minutes and match LSU's intensity. They played a great game tonight. It's who wanted it the most. We didn't want it as bad as they did. I felt like we had a chance to win it all. We just learn from it and move on."

The player who could leave Duluth with her head held the highest said the team has to absorb the loss and get back on the right postseason path.

"We pick our heads up, and we go back to work," Hornbuckle said. "We've got two weeks until the NCAA Tournament, and that's one and done. Tonight we go home – we can't win this championship – but the biggest championship is still out there for us. So we've just got to go to work and have a different mindset every day in practice until the first game of the tournament."


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