What began as a rout ended as one Thursday night.
Tennessee got the one-sided evening started, bolting to a 19-point lead in an SEC women’s basketball showdown with LSU. The Lady Tigers took over from there and finished with a 19-point domination of the second half.
It all added up a 78-62 LSU victory and two teams heading in different directions.
The seventh-ranked Lady Tigers (21-3, 10-0 SEC) left with firm control of the conference lead. They were serenaded by a small group of their fans in attendance, who had enough time and enough lead at the end to indulge in two chants: “L-S-U” and “S-E-C.”
“It just shows we have a lot of heart,’’ said LSU senior forward Ashley Thomas, whose team outscored Tennessee 48-29 in the second half. “The majority of our team are seniors. It’s important for us to go out with a bang.”
The top-ranked Lady Vols (22-2, 8-1) went quietly. They trudged to their locker room, smarting from the 76-41 beating they took followed their rousing 21-2 start. Their fans were largely silent. The crowd of 15,574 at Thompson-Boling Arena began dispersing with more than two minutes remaining.
The ending forced UT officials to scrap plans afterward to officially present Lady Vol Candace Parker with the Honda Award she earned last season. They’ll try again at halftime against Mississippi State on Feb. 24 and hope for a better occasion.
This one couldn’t have been much worse.
The loss was Tennessee’s worst at home since an 82-65 thrashing by Stanford on Dec. 15, 1996. The margin of defeat tied for the worst home loss in SEC play. UT lost to Georgia 72-56 on Feb. 2, 1985.
The loss also ended a 17-game home winning streak and a 12-game win streak for the season.
UT coach Pat Summitt complimented LSU’s play before launching into a scathing review of her team’s performance.
“We can’t expect Candace to carry us every night,’’ Summitt said. “We got a lot of people standing around watching. We got exactly, exactly what we deserved. We didn’t defend and obviously we didn’t make shots.”
Parker scored a game-high 26 points and grabbed 10 rebounds. She added six assists and six steals. Her stat line was comparable, better in some respects, to the heavy lifting she did last season in UT’s 56-51 victory over LSU in Baton Rouge, La. This time, she didn’t have enough help. Center Nicky Anosike, with 10 points, was the only other Lady Vol scoring in double figures.
Or rather there was too much LSU. The Lady Tigers crowded six scorers into double figures — a program first. Center Sylvia Fowles led with 17 points. Point guard Erica White scored 16.
“Take nothing away from them,’’ Summitt said. “There is no quit in their team.”
Led by Parker’s 11 points and three assists, Tennessee charged to its 19-point lead within the first seven minutes. Everything was going the Lady Vols’ way while nothing was working for LSU.
“The first 10 minutes of the game, I can honestly say, we were in lockdown mode,’’ Parker said. “We didn’t let them score. Everybody was putting up garbage. We were making them play to their weaknesses.”
And then the game did a reverse pivot and Tennessee’s weaknesses emerged. Ironically, a missed layup by Parker began another offensive unraveling. Meanwhile, five 3-pointers ignited LSU, which rallied for a brief one-point lead before UT recovered for a 33-30 halftime edge.
The Lady Vols couldn’t get the basketball to Parker or anyone to start the second half, committing five turnovers in the first four minutes. They were falling prey to an LSU defense that gathered 15 steals and played an aggressive part in 19 Tennessee turnovers.
“They’re a very active team,’’ UT guard Alexis Hornbuckle said. “They like to get in the passing lanes. They like to get you to play fast, and we played right into that. … We were playing overanxious and had poor shot selection.”
Despite shooting 28.6 percent from the floor (10 for 35) for the final 20 minutes, the Lady Vols trailed 55-51 with 5 1⁄2 minutes left. A pair of baskets by Quianna Chaney, though, signaled the start of LSU’s finishing kick.
The Lady Vols’ offensive woes dragged down their overall effort, robbing them of any chance at another comeback like Monday’s rally against Rutgers. Instead, they were left to wonder how such a good start could end so badly.
“How did that happen?” Hornbuckle asked. “That’s something we need to look at and look at deep and fix it.”