BATON ROUGE, La. — Defense covered for what was ailing Tennessee Sunday and also did a good job of covering LSU.
In short, the defense never rested. Or so it seemed.
The Lady Vols did breathe a sigh of relief, but not before working long and hard for a 55-43 SEC women’s basketball victory over the Lady Tigers before a crowd of 4,971 at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.
Allison Hightower scored a game-high 17 for LSU but took 22 shots.
“Nothing’s easy,’’ UT coach Pat Summitt said.
The assessment summed up a host of hardships for No. 3 Tennessee (17-2, 5-1 SEC), which moved into a first-place tie with Ole Miss in the conference standings. The Lady Vols matched the 23 turnovers they committed in Thursday’s 53-50 loss to Georgia. Foul trouble played a part in their difficulties as well. Kelley Cain and Glory Johnson both were afflicted early and spent key parts of both halves as spectators.
To make matters worse, UT went on a scoring starvation diet late in the first half, going without a point for a stretch of 6 minutes, 21 seconds that covered both halves. The Lady Vols went without a basket even longer. That drought, which overlapped the same time frame, lasted 7:28.
Through it all, Tennessee’s zone defense didn’t buckle. In fact, the Lady Vols increased their aggressiveness down the stretch, holding No. 18 LSU (14-4, 3-3) scoreless for nearly seven minutes.
Manning added to her presence during the shutout with a pair of steals.
“I thought Alicia Manning’s intensity, defense and toughness on the boards she really made a difference when she was on the court,’’ Summitt said.
Between Hightower’s jumper with 9:35 left and LaSondra Barrett’s two free throws at the 2:47 mark, the Lady Vols broke free from a 37-all tie and opened a 13-point lead.
“I thought our coverage out of the zone was really good,’’ Summitt said. “We extended it. We were aggressive. We got after it.
“… That was as well as I think we played out of the zone all year, those last nine minutes.”
LSU coach Van Chancellor echoed other coaches this season in marveling at a Summitt team playing exclusively in a zone. He also reiterated how Tennessee’s size enhances the alignment. He advanced the storyline, however, by lamenting his team’s 18 turnovers.
“We wanted to try to score it well enough but you can’t turn it over that much against a zone and be successful,’’ Chancellor said. “One of the reasons we turned it over was because they were really active in it. Most zones are passive, but they were really active today.’’
Tennessee solved its scoring woes with gritty determination and uncommon flair. Brewer rebounded her own miss for a basket and a conventional 3-point play, wiping out the remnants of an LSU 3-point lead with 9:46 left.
A Bjorklund jumper gave Tennessee the lead for good at 39-37 with 9:13 left.
The top highlight, though, was born from desperation a few minutes later. The basketball was poked loose from Bjorklund, who hit the deck to retrieve it. She saved the possession by shoveling the ball to Brewer.
“I was just glad Lyssi was there,’’ Bjorklund said. “I wasn’t strong with ball at that point.”
Brewer was. She took the pass and rumbled toward the basket as if were the goal line, converting a nifty bank shot for a 46-37 lead with 5:24 left.
“It definitely helped us out a lot,’’ Brewer said. “I think when we do things like that, our energy just skyrockets.”
Summitt described the play as a “whirlwind something.”
It all worked out because the defense was something special.