Lady Tigers Claw Vols, Take SEC Title

Tennessee faced half-time deficits of nine points in each of its first two SEC Tournament games against Mississippi State and Auburn, but the Lady Vols weren't nearly so fortunate against LSU, and the Lady Tigers weren't nearly so forgiving.

Leading by 17-points at the break, 42-25, LSU (27-3) never let Tennessee closer than 12 points the rest of the way and cruised to SEC Tournament Championship with a comfortable 78-62 victory.

The sixth-ranked Lady Tigers jumped out to an early lead and never trailed. In fact, UT didn't score it's first points until the 15:07 mark when LSU was already up by seven. To appreciate just what a wire-to-wire win it was, consider that after Tournament MVP Temeka Johnson converted a three-point play for a 3-0 lead with 18:33 to go, No. 3 Tennessee never again had the ball with a chance to take the lead.

Neither did the Lady Vols have an answer for the diminutive 5-foot-3 junior point guard, who often looked like a roadster racing past a series of stop signs as she drove the court through dazed Tennessee defenders for layup after layup.

When UT managed to get a road block in the path of the quick silver Johnson, who had 15 points at the half and finished with a game-high 24, she'd stop quicker than she explodes from the starting blocks, arching soft jumpers with deadly accuracy over leaping of defenders. Overall, Johnson hit 10-of-15 field goal attempts and 4-of-4 from the foul line. She also had game highs in rebounding with nine, assists with seven and steals with four.

"Temeka Johnson is a difference-maker for them," Tennessee's Pat Summitt said. "They pushed the ball in transition and made plays. We didn't have an answer for her."

The only answer Tennessee had for LSU center Aiysha Smith was to foul her and that didn't work. Smith hit 7-of-7 free throws and 5-of-7 from the field, scoring 18 points. Freshman forward Seimone Augustus, the object of an intense recruiting battle between UT and LSU last spring, finished with eight rebounds and 12 points, including 10 in the second half to dash any hopes of a Tennessee comeback like the Lady Vols mounted in their previous two games.

Tennessee (27-4) did get another solid performance from all-tournament selection Kara Lawson who scored a team-high 16, hitting 8-of-14 field goals. Shanna Zolman came off the bench to knock down 15 points on 5-of-11 shooting while reserve forward Courtney McDaniels added eight points in nine minutes of action. Collectively, those three connected on 16-of-31 field goals while the rest of UT's team hit just 8-of-33 from the field. Overall, the Lady Vols were successful on 24-of-64 field goal attempts, including 1-of-13 from 3-point range. Tennessee hit 12-of-32 in each half for 37.5 percent game total.

Conversely, LSU hit a sizzling 60.7 percent in the first half (17-of-28) and finished the game hitting 30-of-60 for 50 percent. Once UT fell behind by double digits it was essentially forced to stay in man defense in an attempt to push the tempo which, in turn, created scoring opportunities for Johnson and the Lady Tigers talented front court.

Offensively, Tennessee never really got on track, rarely knocking down shots from the perimeter and often misfiring at pointblank range. Gwen Jackson, who came into the contest leading the Lady Vols with 16.3 points per game, scored just eight points against LSU after scoring only seven Saturday against Mississippi State. UT's third leading scorer Shyra Ely (9.5 ppg) scored two points.

LSU, which upset Tennessee in last year's SEC semifinal, won its first conference title since 1991. UT, which reached its first tournament final since it won the its third straight tourney title in 2000, lost in the SEC final for the first time since 1995 vs. Vanderbilt.

The Lady Vols also saw their 19-game winning streak stopped as well as a 16-game SEC victory string that was highlighted by a 68-65 triumph over LSU in Baton Rouge.

Whether the loss will cost Tennessee a No. 1 seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament won't be known until pairings are announced on Sunday, March 16. That's when LSU will find out if the convincing victory was enough to elevate it to top-seed status. It's conceivable both SEC teams could earn a No. 1 spot but not likely.

Of greater importance to coach Summitt is how her team will bounce back from a sub par SEC Tournament performance that saw the Lady Vols struggle for consistency and continuity.

The good news is Tennessee has 13 days to regain its offensive touch and emotional edge.

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