The LSU lead, like the basketball, was slipping away in the face of Tennessee’s furious full-court pressure Thursday night at Thompson-Boling Arena.
And no one was more aware of it than Lady Tigers senior point guard Jeanne Kenney, who was relieved to see UT shift to a more conventional defense in the last minute.
“Well yes, when you’re turning over the ball about five times, it was a relief,” Kenney said.
Finally, the Lady Tigers were able to hold onto the basketball long enough for Raigyne Moncrief to draw a foul and make two free throws with 12.3 seconds to play.
LSU’s 80-77 lead held up when a 3-point try from Tennessee guard Andraya Carter bounced off the rim in the final seconds.
And just like that, the fifth-ranked Lady Vols began defense of their SEC championship with a conference-opening loss.
The loss was virtually assured when LSU hit five of six free throws following a pair of Tennessee technical fouls. That stretched the Lady Tigers’ lead to 75-59 with 4:37 to play.
It also brought to life a previously dormant Tennessee defense.
With the lead all but out of reach, the Lady Vols played with a sense of purpose that was so obviously lacking for most of the game. Six turnovers later, LSU was on the verge of losing a game that had been all but locked up.
This wasn’t foreign territory for the Lady Tigers.
“It wouldn’t be an LSU game if we didn’t almost blow a lead,” said Kenney, who had 14 points and five assists.
UT’s second loss of the season was as revealing as its first.
Just as the Lady Vols did in their loss to Stanford, they responded with clutch, determined play when confronted with a double-digit deficit in the final five minutes.
They rallied after being down 11 with 4:32 left before finally losing 76-70.
But that was against a top-five team on the road. This was at home against 16th-ranked LSU, which had lost by 21 points to Louisville and by 10 to North Carolina State.
Moreover, there was a large, energized crowd of 14,437, most of whom turned out early to honor former Lady Vols All-American Candace Parker, whose jersey was retired in a pregame ceremony.
Parker’s presence reminded those fans of better days. Tennessee hasn’t been to a Final Four since Parker led it to back-to-back national championships in 2007 and 2008.
The LSU game reminded you why.
As well as the Lady Vols played when LSU’s lead had been stretched almost beyond their reach, their attention was lacking earlier in the game, especially to start the second half when the Lady Tigers opened with an 11-2 run.
Even before that, UT coach Holly Warlick had cause for concern.
LSU guard Danielle Ballard scored 17 of her 25 points in the first half. And most of that came against an accommodating defense that parted way too easily at the point of attack.
“Our defense wasn’t very good,” said an obviously frustrated Warlick. “We weren’t very motivated to play defense until the last six minutes of the game.”
As casual as the Lady Vols were about their half-court defense, you might wonder if they think they’re better than they are.
You could draw the same conclusion from slow starts in earlier games, or the lackadaisical beginning to the second half against LSU.
In more prosperous times — when UT had the 6-foot-5 Parker to anchor its defense or ignite its offense, for example — lapses could be overcome.
But if UT hopes to repeat as SEC champion, it can’t expect to flip a switch and turn an apparent defeat into victory.