Tennessee plays lockdown defense late to defeat LSU
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Meighan Simmons and Cierra Burdick's games have been one-sided enough in the past that Tennessee associate head coach Holly Warlick was concerned about relying on them to fill in for a couple of top players.
Simmons scored 19 and Burdick added 15 for No. 9 Tennessee. More importantly, both pleased Warlick with their sound defense as the Lady Vols got a 65-56 win in an especially physical game against LSU on Thursday night.
"We didn't need (Simmons) or Cierra to be a liability on the defensive end," Warlick said. "Those two young ladies have stepped up. They've put in extra time, and I think it showed tonight."
The Lady Vols (14-4, 5-1 Southeastern Conference) won without leading scorer Shekinna Stricklen, whose streak of 121 consecutive starts ended because of a sprain to her right knee suffered Sunday against Vanderbilt. They've also been without guard Taber Spani, who has been sidelined with a bone bruise in her left knee since Dec. 26.
Simmons has stepped up her offense in Spani's absence, and Tennessee turned to Burdick to help fill in for Stricklen, who was averaging 15.5 points. Before facing LSU, Burdick was playing just under 12 minutes per game but stayed on the floor for 31 minutes against the Lady Tigers.
"With Strick and Taber being out, I knew more minutes were going to be played by the bench, and I just tried to come into this game prepared," Burdick said. "I'm learning a lot from some great players ahead of me, so I'm just trying to use it and take it as positive and just really learn from this experience."
The score was tied 11 times and the teams traded the lead six times before Burdick hit a tiebreaking jumper with 6:22 left that put the Lady Volunteers ahead for good, 51-49.
Vicki Baugh rebounded a missed 3-pointer by LSU's Bianca Lutley on the next possession, and Simmons hit a layup on the break. Tennessee got two more transition baskets in the final three minutes and padded its lead with free throws, despite an uncharacteristic 18-of-31 performance from the line.
Meanwhile, the Lady Tigers only hit one more shot from the floor during the final stretch, a jumper by Adrienne Webb that made it 62-56 with 1:27 left.
Courtney Jones led LSU (13-5, 4-2) with 16 points, and Webb scored 12.
Baugh grabbed 14 rebounds and Glory Johnson added 10 points for Tennessee, which shot 42.9 percent in the second half compared to 34.5 percent by LSU.
The game pit first-year LSU coach Nikki Caldwell against her mentor and former coach, Pat Summitt. Caldwell won three combined national titles as a player and assistant at Tennessee and has mimicked Summitt's defensive focus at both UCLA and LSU.
"Coming in to play against Tennessee, you're always really hyped up and ready to play," LSU forward Theresa Plaisance said. "You just need to be mentally ready and physically ready to come in"
The Lady Tigers had entered the game leading the SEC and ranking second nationally in field goal percentage defense (30.3 percent) and ranked second in the SEC and third nationally in scoring defense (47.5 points per game).
The defenses took over for both teams in the first half, resulting in a physical and injury-filled game.
"Obviously it was a knock-down drag out type fight, but it was a very competitive fight," Caldwell said. "You saw two teams playing every possession like it was their last."
LSU starting point guard Jeanne Kenney left just two minutes into the game with a probably concussion.
Starting guard Destini Hughes took over at the point for Kenney, scoring eight points before she severely injured her right knee trying to catch and shoot off a long pass 3 seconds before halftime. Hughes was tended to by trainers from both teams and taken off the floor in a wheelchair.
Tennessee briefly lost Glory Johnson, who hurt her left shoulder after colliding with another player on a rebound a few minutes before halftime. Johnson headed to the locker room immediately but returned early in the second half, playing with a compression sleeve on the shoulder.
The cumulative effect of the Lady Vols' injuries could prove problematic. Tennessee heads to No. 2 Notre Dame on Monday night, and Warlick was unsure if Stricklen or Spani would be available for the game.
"I'll be fine on Monday," Johnson said. "I'll make sure."
2022-23 Southeastern Conference Standings