Lady Tigers’ rally comes up short against Tennessee

A program that has five Final Four banners hanging from the rafters probably shouldn’t do moral victories.

But considering the wilderness the LSU Lady Tigers have wandered though in February, perhaps this time a moral victory would suffice for the real thing.

The Lady Tigers, losers of four straight coming in Thursday night and five of their last six, were thoroughly dominated trailing No. 10-ranked Tennessee 42-21 at halftime.

But instead of giving up, LSU staged a massive second-half comeback, rallying to tie the game with 3:28 left before falling 72-67 at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center in a game that LSU guard Jeanne Kenney said can be positive for the remainder of the Lady Tigers’ season.

“A win would have been nice, but I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way,” said Kenney, one of three LSU seniors playing their final regular-season home game.

“We came together. That’s something I haven’t seen in a very long time. I’m proud of how we did come back.”

Nonetheless it was a defeat, LSU’s fifth straight, dropping the Lady Tigers to 18-10 overall and 7-8 in the Southeastern Conference.

It’s their longest losing streak since dropping six straight during the 1994-95 season, but LSU coach Nikki Caldwell reached through that gloom to grasp a silver lining.

“I think if the game was 30 minutes we’d be undefeated,” said Caldwell, a former Tennessee guard and assistant coach. “But this team has it in them. There’s a resilience and competitiveness about them, and a determination. It showed in the second half.

“We’re going to turn the corner. I believe it is this game. I really do. I saw a different team tonight.”

The first half LSU was a no-show. The Lady Tigers were outgunned from the start as Tennessee bolted in front 12-2 lead in the first 4½ minutes and never trailed, ballooning its lead to 21 points by halftime.

Seemingly out of it, LSU fought back from the start in the second half, scoring the first six points capped by a 3-pointer by senior Theresa Plaisance.

LSU pulled within two with 4:20 left after a 3-pointer by Kenney and a steal and a drive by DaShawn Harden to make the score 59-57 Tennessee. A pair of free throws by Kenney tied the game for the first time, 59-59.

“Coming out in the second half we really didn’t have anything to lose,” said Plaisance, who was honored before the game with Kenney and fellow senior Shanece McKinney. “We had pride at stake.

“We had to come out and take it one possession at a time. Come down and score on offense and come back on defense and get a stop. We were focused on one thing at a time.”

On the brink of being swept away on LSU’s emotional tidal wave, the Lady Volunteers also dug deep.

Free throws from Meighan Simmons and Cierra Burdick allowed Tennessee to reclaim a 63-59 lead with 2:15 left. Kenney got a basket but Simmons, who poured in a game-high 31 points, responded with a drive and a 3-pointer to put her team back up 63-58 with 56 seconds left.

“Coach was telling us to attack,” Simmons said. “I didn’t think about anything but scoring and trying to get a big stop.”

Tennessee’s lead grew back to eight points before Plaisance, who played the entire 40 minutes, hit a 3-pointer with 9.5 seconds left for the final margin.

“It was a great win for us,” said Tennessee coach Holly Warlick, a close friend and former UT staff member with Caldwell. “That first half was so solid, some of the best defense we’ve played. But we knew Kenney and Plaisance would get loose and they did.”

Kenney led LSU with 21 points while Plaisance had 20 and DaShawn Harden added 10.

Burdick added 22 points for Tennessee, which outrebounded LSU 43-31.

Tennessee improved to 23-5 and 12-3 in the SEC but was eliminated from a chance to claim a share of the regular-season conference title when South Carolina (26-2, 14-1) beat Georgia 67-56.

Given LSU’s late-season swoon, it was possibly the final home game for the Lady Tigers though LSU is hosting first- and second-round NCAA tournament games at the PMAC.

But ESPN women’s bracketologist Charlie Crème said before Thursday’s game that the Lady Tigers’ combination of the nation’s No. 1-ranked strength of schedule and surprisingly high RPI (No. 9) would still earn LSU an NCAA bid even if it loses Sunday at Alabama and in its SEC tournament opener next week in Duluth, Ga.

“If they go 0-3 they’d still be in the tournament, but they would possibly play themselves into an ugly looking seed,” Crème said.

Crème pegged the Lady Tigers as a No. 7 seed Monday in his most recent bracket projection.

Crème said the Lady Tigers could drop to a No. 8 or 9 seed. But that would give the NCAA selection committee the unpleasant chore of sending a No. 1 regional seed, likely Notre Dame or possibly Stanford, for a potential second-round game with LSU on its home floor.

“For a No. 1 seed to go play at LSU, that’s tough,” Crème said.

Tougher, perhaps, after the Lady Tigers nearly pulled off an epic comeback.