Tennessee falls to LSU, 63-61

Tennessee will have to play on the first day of the SEC Tournament for the first time since 1997 after losing to LSU, 63-61, in Baton Rouge on Thursday evening. The Lady Vols overcame a 15-point halftime deficit and the game was tied with a minute to play but the Lady Tigers made two free throws and Tennessee had no last-second game winner this time.

The last time Tennessee (19-9, 8-5) played LSU (16-9, 9-4) was in Tampa in a semifinal game in the Final Four. The Lady Tigers took a one-point lead with seven seconds to play on two free throws, but Alexis Hornbuckle got a putback basket with less than a second to play, and the Lady Vols prevailed and went on to win the program's eighth national title.

On Thursday, LSU took a two-point lead with seven seconds to play and Shekinna Stricklen was swarmed on the wing and her pass to Glory Johnson was tipped. Johnson managed to secure the ball but could not get off a clean shot at the basket.

"Obviously we knew we didn't have a lot of time, but we wanted to at least get a look at it," Coach Pat Summitt said. "They had pressure on us, and we didn't have an opportunity."

The win secured the fourth seed for LSU in the SEC tourney next week in Little Rock, Ark., and Tennessee will have to play on the first day next Thursday.

"It seems like whenever we face each other there's something on the line," Coach Pat Summitt said. "Certainly there was last year in the SEC tournament and in the NCAAs and certainly tonight. The winner of this game didn't have to play in the first day of the tournament. There's always a prize, and tonight they won the prize."

The Lady Vols started the game as if they were ready to let LSU have that prize. The Lady Tigers led 10-2 while the Lady Vols had one basket and six turnovers in a variety of ways – three seconds, lost the ball on the dribble, extra steps and double dribble. At 14-2 Summitt called timeout, and the Lady Vols made a mini-run to cut the lead to 21-14 but Andrea Kelly came out the bench to hit two three-pointers and extend LSU's lead to double digits.

Tennessee continued to hand the ball back to LSU – consecutive travels – and trailed at halftime, 35-20. A three-pointer by Angie Bjorklund right before the break cut the lead to 15, but the Lady Vols had 15 turnovers to just four for the Lady Tigers.

"Turnovers hurt us," Summitt said. "We had 21 turnovers. If you look at the box for us and the box for them, they were just better. Turning the basketball over has been a problem for us all along. You can't turn the ball over against a team that's playing as well as LSU did tonight."

Tennessee had just six turnovers in the second half, while LSU had just five. And Tennessee made use of its possessions after the break by shooting a scorching 66.7 percent in the second half and wiped out the 15-point lead. A three from Stricklen from about 25 feet tied the game at 51-51. LSU answered, but Tennessee clawed back twice more to tie the game at 53-53 on a wing shot from Angie Bjorklund and then two free throws from Alex Fuller to leave the game knotted at 61-61 with a minute to play.

But LSU scrambled on its last possession and drew a blocking charge on Bjorklund. Katherine Graham hit both free throws for the final margin.

Graham had 12 points for the game and LaSondra Barrett led LSU with 18 points. Allison Hightower was unstoppable in the first half and finished with 14 points, but she left in the second half with a hamstring tweak and cramping in her legs. Hightower was shut down in the second half prior to her departure with smothering defense from Bjorklund.

Bjorklund led Tennessee on the offensive end with 21 points. Stricklen added 18 points, and Kelley Cain chipped in 12 on a perfect 6-6 night from the field. The Lady Vols prevailed on the boards, 37-25.

LSU shot 45.5 percent for the game while Tennessee, which shot 28 percent in the first half, finished at 46.9 percent. The Lady Vols outscored LSU, 41-28, in the second half, but could never take the lead.

Tennessee got very little from its bench – Summitt noted on her post-game radio show that Alicia Manning played 19 minutes and never attempted a shot, and Alyssia Brewer and Amber Gray, who started the second half, were both 0-4 from the field.

"This has been one of the most frustrating jobs for our coaching staff because we never know who's going to bring what," Summitt said. "We needed some more help off our bench, and I think that really hurt us a lot. The starters didn't get us off to a good start either.

"Give credit to LSU; I thought they played with tremendous confidence and they were very aggressive. Van has done a great job with a young basketball team, and it appears he's done a much better job than I have."

Stricklen, who had three assists and just one turnover from the point guard spot, also had six rebounds and two steals. She was the player of the game selected by Mickey Dearstone, who asked about the slow starts.

"I really don't know, but we come out slow," Stricklen said.

It's been a season-long issue more or less – there have been some exceptions – and the Lady Vols have been adept at times at emerging from holes of their own creation, but it's a strategy that doesn't always have a good chance to succeed.

"This team finds a way to make a big run, but that's tough to do on the road," Summitt said. "They turn it on when they feel like turning it on, and that's been costly for us."

Before the team left for Baton Rouge, Summitt had taken a philosophical approach to the season, one that eight losses, at that point, and playing for the fourth seed in the conference had set in motion in her mind.

"It's different for us," Summitt said. "There's no doubt we're in a different situation than we've been in in the past. But, again, I have to try to see the positives right now, and I think it's pretty positive that we've been able to come from behind as many times as we have and we've been able to win the games that we've won. There are a lot of games we could have lost if we haven't closed them out."

The fact Tennessee didn't close out this game when it had a chance after tying the game three times will upset Summitt, and the defensive lapses to start the game underscore what she also had said before leaving Knoxville.

"Any team can play defense," Summitt said. "It's a matter of will they? We have had games where we have played very good defense. And then we have games where we can't defend the dribble drive. What's the difference? It's their commitment or their lack of commitment. And I know one-on-one is the hardest thing to defend in basketball, but you still have got to be committed.

"As I told Briana (Bass) if you're having trouble guarding your player don't let them have the ball and then you don't have to guard anybody. You can be in help. I think a lot of players want to play defense after the player gets the ball and they need to play it early and before."

Bass, a 5'2 guard, had to enter the game early in place of the 6'3 Johnson after Johnson ran into a screen and collapsed on the court. She was assisted to the bench while holding the left side of her jaw. When Fuller limped to the locker room at the 6:21 mark – she would return with three minutes left in the first half – Johnson replaced her. Bass had two assists in 12 minutes of play.

Summitt has been seeking 40 minutes of basketball – she believes she got it in the wins over Georgia and Mississippi State – and Stricklen spoke of the team's struggles in that regard before the LSU game.

"We hadn't been playing the whole game – effort and hustling and other teams beating us to loose balls," Stricklen said. "It's just showing toughness and effort and it's something we've got to bring the whole game every game."

Stricklen did her part on Thursday – she was 7-10 from the field and 2-2 from long range – in 34 minutes of play in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center, which was apparently overheated as video images from television showed both benches uses towels and paper plates as fans to try to cool off players. Fuller logged the most minutes at 37 – she struggled from the field at 1-7 but had five boards, two steals and an assist – and Bjorklund was on the floor for 36 minutes, though she had six turnovers. Johnson logged just 14 minutes but had four turnovers and may have been affected by the shot to the jaw.

Tennessee finishes the regular season at home in a rematch against Vanderbilt on Sunday evening, which will be "Senior Night" for Fuller, the lone one on the roster, and then the Lady Vols must get ready for postseason, which will begin a day earlier for Tennessee for the first time in 12 years.

"We'll go back and get ready for SECs," Summitt said. "One good thing about it is that if we lose out early there we'll have more time to practice for NCAAs. They have to decide if they want to play or practice."

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