KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - LSU (22-7, 11-5 SEC) clinched the No. 2 seed in the SEC Tournament with a 57-54 win in Thompson-Boling Arena on Sunday over Tennessee (25-4, 13-3 SEC) after staving off a late Lady Vols comeback attempt.
LSU led by 14 at the half, but Tennessee upped their pressure in the second half and meticulously came back in the game. By the final minute, the Lady Vols had made it a one-possession game and an opportunity to tie it in the final second. Khayla Pointer intercepted Tennessee’s inbound attempt in the final five seconds to clinch the win.
“This group, I’ll tell you - I don’t know when it’s going to end, but they just grind and they just find ways to win,” LSU Head Coach Kim Mulkey said.
LSU was picked to finish No. 8 in the SEC during the preseason, but the Tigers finished in second place, only behind the unanimous No. 1 team in the country in South Carolina. In Coach Mulkey’s first season at LSU, the Tigers finished inside the top-two in the conference for the first time since 2008.
LSU is slated to play on Friday, March 4th at 6 p.m. CT in the Bridgestone Arena against an opponent to be determined. The game will be televised on SEC Network.
Jailin Cherry (14 points, 10 rebounds) and Khayla Pointer (12 points, 14 rebounds) both had double-doubles. Autumn Newby scored 10 of her final 12 points in the first quarter helping LSU jump out to an early lead.
Tamari Key led the Lady Vols with 12 points and 9 rebounds and she was key in the second-half comeback. Key had 11 in the second half. Rae Burrell had 11 and Alexus Dye finished with 10 points.
“The most important thing is how we started the game,” Coach Mulkey said. “Confident. Shot the ball good, but defended good as well. I thought the only way we could come in here and win under some circumstances out of our control was if we rebounded the ball.”
Newby grabbed two offensive rebounds on LSU’s first possession and scored to get LSU on the board first. Aifuwa and Newby hit back-to-back jumpers to put the Tigers up 6-0, seizing the early momentum in Knoxville. Tennessee scored its first points at the 6:20 mark, but Cherry pulled up for a jumper in transition to respond for LSU. Payne went for a four-point burst to put LSU in front, 14-7, going into the first media timeout. Newby hit another jumper to put LSU up nine, giving her eight in the opening quarter. On a fast break a few possessions later, Payne found Newby who laid it in to stretch LSU’s advantage to 20-9. Tennessee missed its final nine shots of the quarter and LSU led, 22-10, at the end of one.
Cherry hit a difficult pull-up, fadeaway to get LSU on the board first in the second quarter and on the next possession, Pointer stepped into a three to put the Tigers up, 27-10. Both teams went into an offensive lull through the middle part of the second quarter as Tennessee’s home crowd tried to get the Lady Vols going. Tennessee brought it within 13 when Pointer hit a runner through traffic to give LSU a 31-16 advantage. Payne hit a three-pointer after another Tennessee make to put the Tigers up 14. Newby drew an offensive foul on Key on the other, her second, and she was forced to the bench. LSU took a 36-22 lead into the half.
LSU had the hot hand in the first half, shooting 48.6-percent from the field. The Tigers also ratcheted up the defensive pressure, forcing nine turnovers and limiting the Lady Vols to 25-percent shooting.
The Lady Vols looked early and often to get the ball down low to Key to start the half who scored four points in the first four minutes of the quarter, helping Tennessee bring the game within 10. Aifuwa hit a pair of free throws at 2:23 to give LSU a 44-32 lead, but Aifuwa was called for her fourth foul a couple of possessions later, forcing her to the bench. LSU, after missing its final 12 shots of the third quarter, went into the fourth with an eight-point lead, 44-36. Key had 10 points in the quarter for the Lady Vols and made her presence known on the defensive end with three blocks.
Cherry rolled in a twelve-footer for the first points of the quarter to bring LSU’s lead back to double figures. Hannah Gusters grabbed a big offensive board and put it back up for two to make it a 12-point lead and after a pair of Pointer free throws, LSU led, 50-36. After three Tennessee points, Gusters hit a jumper from the top of the key to help LSU keep its distance. On the next offensive possession, Pointer dished it to Gusters on the low block and then Cherry hit two free throws after grabbing a Tennessee airball and going coast to coast. The Tigers led by 15 with five minutes remaining.
Tennessee quickly made it a nine-point game, scoring six straight in under a minute and refusing to go quietly. After a turnover during Tennessee’s full-court press, the Lady Vols made it a seven-point game. After a critical defensive stop for the Tigers, Aifuwa was called for an offensive foul in transition, fouling out of the game. By the one-minute mark, Tennessee had brought the game within four. Burrell scored with 33.4 seconds left to make it a two-point game and with 25.3 seconds left Payne was called for a travel. Gusters forced a Key miss and Pointer grabbed the rebound, going to the line with 3.5 seconds left. Pointer made the first but missed the second. Tennessee called a timeout with 3.2 seconds left, getting the ball down, 57-54, with an opportunity to send the game into overtime. Pointer intercepted the inbounds pass to clinch LSU’s victory.
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