DULUTH, Ga. — As LSU players settled into their defensive blocks midway through the second half, Jeanne Kenney went from one of her teammates to another and whispered, “Get a stop. Get a stop.”
For nearly 32 minutes, the Lady Tigers got their stops and answered every challenge Tennessee threw at them. But then for a crucial five-minute stretch in the second half, LSU’s shots stopped falling, the defensive stops disappeared and the Lady Volunteers raced off on a 19-0 spurt to eliminate the Lady Tigers 77-65 from the Southeastern Conference tournament quarterfinals at the Gwinnett Center.
No. 10 seed LSU dropped to 19-12 and now returns home to await their NCAA tournament fate. No. 2 seed Tennessee improved to 25-5 and advanced to Saturday’s semifinals.
After snapping their school record-tying six-game losing streak with Thursday’s 78-65 second-round win over Alabama, LSU started out by carrying that same intensity and strong play to the Lady Vols.
LSU sank 7 of 9 3-pointers, including one by Kenney, that allowed the Lady Tigers to sprint to a 27-12 lead by the 9:32 mark of the first half. It eclipsed by one LSU’s largest lead when it opened SEC play Jan. 2 with an 80-77 win in Knoxville.
“What was working in the beginning is they were one-and-done,” Kenney said. “We boxed out and, even if we didn’t, the ball went our way. Theresa (Plaisance) started hitting 3s, and I hit a couple and our defense generated our offense.”
But just like LSU did in Baton Rouge when it rallied to tie Tennessee late after trailing by 21 points at halftime, the Lady Vols rallied as well.
While Tennessee was a bankrupt 0-for-8 from 3-point range, the Lady Vols extended their defense and held LSU to one make from beyond the arc in its final 11 attempts.
That and a killer presence around the basket — Tennessee outrebounded LSU 48-30 and outscored it 52-18 in the paint — eventually spelled victory for the Lady Vols.
“They just were doing a great job taking everything away from me,” said Plaisance, who shared game-high scoring honors with 21 points before fouling out of her final SEC tournament game with 1:32 left. “After I hit my first couple of shots, they started denying me, and it was almost impossible to get the ball inside.”
LSU took a 55-51 lead with 8:32 remaining on a pair of Kenney free throws, but the Lady Tigers didn’t score again until Danielle Ballard had a putback basket with 3:09 left.
In between, Tennessee reeled off 19 straight points, led mostly by center Isabelle Harrison (21 points, 12 rebounds) and guard Meighan Simmons (14 points), who started the game 0-for-5 thanks to sticky man-to-man defense from DaShawn Harden.
“I think this team has learned to be resilient,” Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. “They’ve got a mindset right now that they’re never out of a game.
“They kind of bow up a little bit when they’re behind. I wish they would do that when we’re ahead. It would save me a lot of stress and yelling.”
The Lady Vols also got 14 points from Bashaara Graves, 10 points and 11 rebounds from Cierra Burdick and 10 points from Andraya Carter.
Ballard finished with 15 points for LSU, while Kenney had 13.
Ballard and Shanece McKinney led LSU with 18 points each against Alabama, McKinney turning in one of her best games of the season. She made 8 of 9 shot attempts, grabbed 10 rebounds and blocked four shots against the Crimson Tide.
But McKinney was in and out of foul trouble Friday and finished with just two points on 1-of-3 shooting and seven rebounds in 21 minutes. Her absence was keenly felt by the Lady Tigers, who were able to match Tennessee’s plethora of willowy post players when she was on the court.
LSU coach Nikki Caldwell praised her seniors — Plaisance, McKinney and Kenney — while at the same time dismissing the notion of a lack of chemistry that she brought up just a few games ago.
“We talk about when adversity hits, your true character will be revealed,” Caldwell said. “Our kids have been great teammates. They’ve invested in each other. Theresa and Jeanne and Shanece, they know it’s their last go-round. They’re living in the moment. You can tell.”
Now LSU takes a moment and for the 10-day wait until the NCAA tournament field is announced March 17.