Lady Tigers aim for momentum after second-half surge vs. Tennessee

Advocate staff photo by CATHERINE THRELKELD -- LSU's Danielle Ballard shoots over Tennessee's Bashaara Graves during the game between LSU and Tennessee on Thursday at Pete Maravich Assembly Center in Baton Rouge. Tennessee defeated LSU in their final regular season home game, 72-67.
Advocate staff photo by CATHERINE THRELKELD -- LSU's Danielle Ballard shoots over Tennessee's Bashaara Graves during the game between LSU and Tennessee on Thursday at Pete Maravich Assembly Center in Baton Rouge. Tennessee defeated LSU in their final regular season home game, 72-67.

When a losing streak mounts like the one the LSU Lady Tigers find themselves mired in, the only option is to try to draw positives from the very games you’ve lost.

That was the tone Thursday from the LSU camp following the Lady Tigers’ 72-67 loss to Tennessee, their fifth straight and sixth in seven games.

That LSU was beaten again, its longest losing skid since dropping six in a row from 1994-95, is not news. Nor necessarily is that the Lady Tigers found themselves down 42-21 at halftime.

What was significant, at least from the LSU perspective, was that the Lady Tigers didn’t quit.

They scrapped and clawed back from that deficit to tie the score at 59 with 3:28 left before Tennessee hit some clutch free throws and shots down the stretch to pull away again.

During that rally, LSU:

Outscored Tennessee 46-30.

Shot 47.1 percent from the floor compared to 22.2 percent in the first half.

Evened the rebounding battle 17-17 after being outboarded 26-14 in the first 20 minutes.

Committed one turnover after having 11 in the first half.

“I couldn’t be more proud of the effort and heart of this group,” said senior forward Theresa Plaisance, who scored 20 points in her final regular-season home game.

It’s what the Lady Tigers (18-10, 7-8 Southeastern) do now with the effort and heart they showed against Tennessee that’s important as they try to gin up momentum going into Sunday’s regular-season finale at Alabama and next week’s SEC tournament in Duluth, Ga.

For LSU coach Nikki Caldwell, who with her staff has been desperately trying to solve the self-stated problems of team chemistry and intensity, it’s a half worth building on.

“It was what you wanted to leave on the floor,” Caldwell said. “They can’t leave here with their heads down. Their true character came out. They showed the fans and showed themselves they have this fight in them. They could have folded, but they didn’t. They started believing.”

The loss dropped LSU into a tie for sixth with Vanderbilt in the SEC. If the season ended today, LSU would be the No. 7 tournament seed facing a 6 p.m. Thursday matchup with No. 10 Missouri, whom the Lady Tigers swept in the regular season.

Waiting in the quarterfinals would be Tennessee or Texas A&M. LSU split with the Lady Vols and was swept by a total of nine points in two meetings with the Aggies. LSU could climb as high as the No. 5 seed if it wins Sunday, Florida (8-7) loses to Texas A&M and Vanderbilt (7-8) loses at Kentucky.

LSU’s No. 9 RPI may not appear to jive with its record, but RealTimeRPI.com continues to rank the Lady Tigers as having the nation’s toughest strength of schedule, a number that wasn’t hurt by playing RPI No. 6 Tennessee.

For that reason, ESPN women’s bracketologist Charlie Crème said before Thursday’s game that LSU has little if anything to fear in terms of being left out of the NCAA field of 64.

Another plus: LSU will be hosting NCAA first- and second-round games at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center on March 23 and 25. Unlike in the men’s tournament, if a school is hosting and in the field, it is guaranteed to play at home.

With that concern reduced to a low priority, the Lady Tigers can focus on using their second half against Tennessee as a template for their remaining games.

“I think this group can make up their minds and make a choice to go to Alabama and play hard-nosed defense for 40 minutes,” Caldwell said. “It’s really about choice and attitude.

“They have it in them … but it’s got to be from the start. We will show them how and why (in practice and film study) they were successful.”