If the Tennessee women’s basketball team’s first two possessions were any indication of how the rest of its SEC Tournament game against LSU would go, then the Lady Vols were in deep trouble.
Their very first possession ended with a traveling call, and the ensuing one ended when a pass from Mimi Collins sailed out of bounds.
Meanwhile, LSU was able to capitalize, scoring on both of its opening tries to take a 4-0 lead in the first minute of the game. However, Tennessee was able to overcome that very poor start, and surged past the Tigers late in the game on the way to a 69-66 victory.
“We talked about how hard we need to play,” head coach Holly Warlick said. “My gut was killing me on the way over here, but that’s me being competitive… Today, we were competitive with our backs against the wall.”
For the Lady Vols, the win means more than just an opportunity in the quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament- it means keeping their NCAA Tournament hopes alive. Thursday’s game was seen as a must-win for both participants, with the winner likely getting a nod on Selection Sunday.
Tennessee is the only team that has not missed the tournament since its inception in 1982. It’s second all time in national championships won, at eight. For now, that streak looks like it still has life.
Those sloppy turnovers never went away, though the Lady Vols were able to overcome them. They finished with 10 total in the first half, allowing LSU to score 11 of its 35 total points in the first 20 minutes of play off of those mistakes.
“We talked a lot about it at halftime,” Warlick said. “Just a lot of unforced errors, trying to make a home run. Just get it to the open player. It limited our opportunities to shoot the basketball.”
It looked like things were going to get even worse in the third quarter when Tennessee committed five more turnovers. Even still, the Tigers were unable to pull away.
That was largely due to efforts by sophomores Rennia Davis and Evina Westbrook, who had a combined 27 points in the second half. It was a three-point shot from Davis with 3:18 left in the game that provided the biggest spark for Tennessee.
With just a second left on the shot clock, the forward from Jacksonville, Fla. pulled up from well beyond the arc. The shot stayed true, and splashed through the bottom of the net. That gave her team a 62-57 lead.
Cheridene Green drew a charge on the following LSU possession, causing the Tigers to take a timeout. Tennessee’s players jogged, and even hopped, to their bench with more energy and swagger than they have had all season.
“I think that just gave us another momentum boost,” Davis said. “The fourth quarter for us, it’s all about finishing games. Every big shot counts, every defensive stop counts.”
That three-point shot was the only one the Lady Vols hit in the second half, and one of just four for the entire game. The lead that Davis propelled her team to would not be relinquished, though LSU made a threatening run in the final minute.
She also made a few free throws in the final seconds that put the game just out of reach for the Tigers. Westbrook hit some clutch shots, as well, on her way to a 15 point second half.
She finished 7 for 10 from the field in the final 20 minutes of play.
“I just knew I had to be more aggressive,” Westbrook said. “As the second half went on, my team was giving me confidence and my coaches were giving me confidence… As a point guard, that’s my job. To make plays.”
A matchup against regular season SEC Champion and No. 1 seed Mississippi State awaits for the victorious Lady Vols. They will face off against the Bulldogs at noon on Friday.