Tennessee was the last team standing Thursday night.
The Lady Vols were braced for a physical, competitive SEC women’s basketball struggle with LSU and they got it, surviving for a 65-56 victory.
“I knew from the beginning this was going to be the scrappiest game of our SEC experience,’’ UT guard Meighan Simmons said.
Freshman teammate Cierra Burdick seemed to enjoy the rough and tumble surroundings.
“Players were hitting the deck every single possession,’’ she said. “That’s exciting. People want to see that. People want to come and pay money and see women just battle on the floor. I think we did a great job of that, and I hope our fans approve.”
The 13,107 in attendance at Thompson-Boling Arena got their money’s worth from Simmons, who scored a game-high 19 points. She had three of the Lady Vols’ five 3-pointers, their most in five games.
UT associate head coach Holly Warlick approved of Simmons’ play on defense.
“We want to make sure Meighan plays both ends of the floor,’’ Warlick said. “I thought tonight she played both ends of the floor and we needed her.”
Burdick was entertaining as well, tying her season high with 15 points. She also grabbed six rebounds.
“She just played her heart out,’’ teammate Glory Johnson said.
Johnson was Tennessee’s third double-figure scorer with 10 points. Neither her points nor her six rebounds overshadowed her pain tolerance, however. She departed late in the first half with her left arm dangling at her side after suffering a shoulder injury.
“I think one of my shoulders was bent back and I heard a pop,’’ the senior forward said, “and that’s when I was holding it.”
Johnson returned in the second half wearing a sleeve, which she used to wear regularly, and played eight minutes.
Tennessee already was playing without Shekinna Stricklen and Taber Spani, who were sitting on the bench with knee injuries.
“I’ll be fine,’’ said Johnson, referring to Monday’s game at No. 2 Notre Dame. “I’ll make sure.”
Attrition-wise, LSU (13-5, 4-2) wasn’t as fortunate. Guard Jeanne Kenney was knocked out early with a concussion. Then, shortly before halftime, fellow guard Destini Hughes leaped for a long pass and landed awkwardly. She went to the locker room in a wheelchair, having suffered an apparent knee injury.
The injuries essentially stripped the Lady Tigers of their point guards and forced them to rearrange their lineup. No matter, they were lurking within 56-53 with 3:03 left.
Tennessee then got the scoring separation it craved courtesy of consecutive layups by Johnson and Ariel Massengale.
The baskets accounted for four of the 20 points Tennessee managed from close range against LSU’s defense.
The Lady Vols had just six points in the paint at halftime. Since they weren’t going to win solely on jump shots, they had to find a way into the foul lane.
“We told our players to penetrate the zone and get looks,’’ Warlick said.
|“ … We had a little bit of shot fakes and took the ball inside a little bit more.”
Center Vicki Baugh didn’t shoot particularly well, making just two field goals. But she grabbed 10 of her game-high 14 rebounds in the second half. Five of them were on the offensive end.
The other by-product of getting inside was getting to the free throw line. UT had 31 attempts and, despite some wayward accuracy, managed to score 18 points there.
“Down the stretch,’’ Warlick said, “we made plays, we made stops and we got key rebounds.”
Dan Fleser may be reached at 865-342-6288. Follow him at http://twitter.com/FleserKNS and http://blogs.knoxnews.com/fleser