Lady Tigers give up lead, lose to Lady Vols

It was the Pete Maravich Assembly Center late on a Thursday night in February, but it looked an awful lot like the Final Four in New Orleans in 2004 or the Final Four in Tampa, Fla., in 2008.

It was LSU, again, unable to hold off No. 12-ranked Tennessee in the closing seconds of a dramatic game, this time by a final score of 64-62.

“This one will be bitter,” said LSU coach Nikki Caldwell, herself a former Tennessee player and a Tennessee assistant in 2004. “We had a chance. We had the right people at the line, opportunities to put the ball inside, the right people taking shots. We take ownership of this loss.”

The question is will it prove to be a loss that takes LSU’s NCAA tournament hopes down with it.

The second straight home defeat against a ranked team — No. 14 Texas A&M pulled away from LSU 74-57 Monday night — dropped LSU to 13-10 overall and 4-6 in Southeastern Conference play.

The Lady Tigers must regroup to face No. 9 Georgia at 12:30 p.m. Sunday on ESPNU, a game that likely falls into the must-win category if LSU is to have a chance to go .500 in SEC play, considered a cornerstone of an NCAA tournament bid.

LSU looked as though it would pull out a crucial victory when Theresa Plaisance made a baseline jumper with 1:02 left for a 62-59 lead and Bianca Lutley went to the line for a one-and-one opportunity with 31.2 seconds left.

But Lutley missed and Bashaara Graves made a layup to cut Tennessee’s deficit to 62-61 with 15.7 seconds left. Plaisance was fouled with 13.2 left, but she also missed the front end of a one-and-one.

Lutley was forced to foul Cierra Burdick on a baseline jumper with 7.1 seconds left. Burdick made one of two to tie the score 62-62.

LSU tried to inbound with a chance to go down for a winning shot, but just like in a 50-50 tie in New Orleans nine years ago the Lady Tigers turned it over and Tennessee made it count. Graves took the ball from Lutley and after an inbound she made a game-winning layup with 0.8 seconds left that hung on the rim before falling through.

“We just never quit,” said Graves, who finished with 17 points. “I knew when we got the possession we would win.”

LSU had one last chance as Plaisance lobbed a long three-quarter court pass to Adrienne Webb, who was somehow wide open on the left wing.

But as if to add insult to injury, Webb’s 3-pointer came up just short. It clanged off the side of the rim as time expired and she fell to the court as the Lady Vols celebrated yet another escape act against the Lady Tigers.

“We would get up and they would get up,” Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. “Both teams played hard. I’m sure it was a fun game to watch.”

Plaisance, the SEC’s leading scorer coming in with 17.9 points per game, led all scorers with 20. Lutley followed with 13 for LSU while Danielle Ballard had 10. Meighan Simmons had 18 points to lead the Lady Vols (18-5, 9-1), who took a half-game lead at the top of the SEC standings over idle Texas A&M (18-5, 8-1).

Just as it did against A&M, LSU fell behind 9-0 to start the game. That’s when Caldwell put in guard Jeanne Kenney, who didn’t start the game because of a sprained knee she suffered against the Aggies.

“I was going to put myself in somehow,” Kenney said.

Kenney, her left leg wrapped like it was going to be shipped overseas, had just four points, but added five assists and five rebounds along with taking a bone-crunching charge from Ariel Massengale to wipe out a second-half Tennessee basket.

“I think it was gutsy when she stands there in transition and there are people coming full speed at her and she stands and takes a charge,” Caldwell said. “She has just done that over and over for us.”

“Jeanne is our leader with her voice and her energy,” Plaisance said. “Her influence makes us want to do better.”

The coaching matchup was a clash of close friends in Caldwell and Warlick.

Afterward, Warlick admitted she felt a little like John and Jim Harbaugh’s parents watching their sons coach against each other in Sunday’s Super Bowl.

“I love her like a sister,” an emotional Warlick said. “I recruited her. I coached her. I got the opportunity to work with her. It’s a little difficult, but when we cross that line we compete. We compete in everything we do and afterward we are great friends. It was a little bittersweet.”

For LSU, it was just bitter.