The LSU softball team set a school record by winning its first 25 games on its way to being ranked No. 1 in the country for the first time in school history.
The Tigers, though, entered the Southeastern Conference tournament ranked No. 8 after losing five of their final eight games in the regular season.
So the big question entering the quarterfinal game against Tennessee on Thursday night at Tiger Park was whether LSU would play like the team that hit some bumps at the end of the regular-season road or regain the form that made it seem like a shoo-in for a national seed just a few weeks ago.
After more than a two-hour weather delay, the answer came in the form of a 7-5 loss that further dampened the Tigers’ stretch run. That leaves LSU on the sideline for the last two days of the tournament, with extra time to wonder how to get this historic season headed back in the right direction.
Coach Beth Torina had a the-glass-is-half-full approach to the early exit.
“It’s nice to have a few more days where you don’t have an opponent, where you just worry about the things that your team needs to do well and our own personal strengths,” she said, noting that the Tigers swung the bats well at times and played error-free, which is a step in the right direction.
“We don’t have to worry about trying to prepare for what someone is going to throw at us,” she continued. “We can just get back to doing what we do well and get back to playing really good softball.”
The Tigers were playing for the first time since an encouraging 7-1 victory against No. 2 seed Auburn four days earlier. They had fallen behind in the first inning of their past three losses but started Thursday like the team that won its first 30 games at Tiger Park before losing three of its last five.
Bianka Bell doubled in a run in the first and Emily Griggs singled home one in the second, giving LSU the fast start Torina said it needed going into the tournament.
Meanwhile, Carley Hoover started with three scoreless innings and got two quick outs in the fourth before things changed dramatically.
Meghan Gregg hit a solo homer to center, and Taylor Koenig sent a two-run shot over the fence a little closer to right field. Suddenly, Hoover was teetering, and so were the Tigers.
But in the bottom of the fifth, things changed in the other direction. Bell hit a long home run to left to tie the score and brought the crowd to life. Then, the bottom third of the order played small ball as Constance Quinn, Sydney Bourg and Griggs hit consecutive RBI singles for a 5-3 Tigers lead.
The Quinn and Bourg hits were notable in that freshman Bourg has replaced sophomore Quinn at second base because of late-season defensive issues for Quinn. Torina said the Tigers will need Quinn to contribute if they’re going to make a strong postseason run.
So she made Quinn the designated player, and she responded with a hit and two walks. But that falls into the straw-grasping category.
Allie Walljasper, who replaced fellow freshman Hoover with two outs in the fifth, had the game and the host team’s tournament fate in her hands. Things came apart for her much as they did for Hoover as Tennessee scored three runs in the sixth to regain the lead 6-5. Megan Geer’s home run made it 7-5 in the seventh.
“We’ve got two freshmen out there that are continuing to learn,” Torina said, “and they will continue to learn.”
LSU’s pitching depth has been one of its biggest strengths, but it wasn’t an asset in this game. The Tigers, who struggled to get key hits with runners on base against Auburn last weekend, might have overcome the pitching if it hadn’t stranded 10 runners.
The NCAA will unveil its 64-team tournament field Sunday night. LSU, ranked No. 8, is all but certain to host a regional next week. Even with the late-season losses, the Tigers, a steady No. 2 in the RPI, might still land a national seed.
But LSU’s seeding and the location of future games won’t matter much if the Tigers continue in the direction they’re headed.
Follow Les East on Twitter: @EastAdvocate.