On a “We back Pat” Sunday, a day to remember former Tennessee coach Pat Summitt and raise awareness for the Alzheimer’s disease that claimed her life, the LSU Tigers beat her former Lady Volunteers with their own game.
Rebounding. Hustle. Heart. And will.
“Pat was probably raising hell up there,” current Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said after LSU’s 70-59 upset of her No. 10-ranked Lady Vols. “They fought and we didn’t.”
Of course, LSU coach Nikki Fargas learned at the feet of the same teacher.
“It took everyone making the choice to go in and rebound,” Fargas said. “If we missed a shot, we didn’t quit. We battled and played hard.”
LSU’s first victory over a top-10 foe in more than three years — the last was an 84-79 win over Kentucky on Jan. 18, 2015 — was keyed by the Lady Tigers’ surprising 44-32 command of the boards over a larger Tennessee team that entered the game with the Southeastern Conference’s second-best rebounding margin at plus-9.8. LSU came in 11th in the SEC at plus-0.1.
Now they’re both 5-3 in SEC play, tied for sixth midway through the regular season. LSU is 13-6 overall, Tennessee 17-4.
“It’s uncharacteristic for us,” said Warlick, who embraced her good friend Fargas near midcourt after the final horn. “We’re a rebounding, physical team. We must have left that in Knoxville.”
LSU got outrebounded 39-29 this past Monday in a 69-59 loss at Texas A&M but was the aggressor throughout Sunday's game around the basket. The Lady Tigers outscored the Lady Vols 34-22 in the paint and had twice as many second-chance points (20-10).
In one respect, LSU forward Ayana Mitchell helped make it a closer game than it might have been, going 2 of 10 from the free-throw line (the rest of her team was 12 of 17). But she made up for it on the glass with a career high-tying 16 rebounds along with eight points.
“Rebounding is what I hang my hat on,” said Mitchell, who admitted she was “out of it” after missing her first four free throws. “I wasn’t scoring like I wanted to, so I had to do something.”
The last time the 6-foot-2 Mitchell and LSU faced a center the size and caliber of Tennessee’s 6-6 Mercedes Russell, it was 6-7 Teaira McCowan of Mississippi State. She overwhelmed the Lady Tigers for 31 points and 20 rebounds in an 83-70 romp.
Russell had a double double, too — 14 points and 10 rebounds — but LSU kept the damage to a minumum by swarming her with its other bigs: Faustine Aifuwa, Yasmine Bidikuindila and Raven Farley.
“I challenged our post game to step up and not allow it to be one player,” Fargas said. “We didn’t play Mitchell on (Russell) a lot. Faustine and Yasmine and Raven, those three with their size did a good job on a very, very good basketball player.”
LSU trailed 18-13 after the first quarter and 29-19 midway through the second before beginning to chip away. Raigyne Louis, who finished with 18 points and became the 14th Lady Tiger with over 1,500 points for her career, epitomized LSU’s effort by flashing in among Tennessee’s tall trees for a putback basket just before the halftime buzzer to cut the deficit to 31-26.
“We were the underdog team,” Fargas said. “We don’t mind that role. I like that we’re scrappy and undersized.”
LSU took its first lead since 4-2 at the 6:10 mark of the third on a fastbreak basket by Mitchell off an assist by Jaelyn Richard-Harris. The Lady Tigers led 45-40 after the third and took command in the fourth on a trio of jumpers by Chloe Jackson (she led all scorers with 21 points) sandwiched around a fastbreak basket from Louis for a 53-43 lead with 7:03 remaining.
Tennessee closed within five, 55-50, with 3:56 left on two free throws by Meme Jackson. But Richard-Harris buried a 3-pointer from the top of the key for a 58-50 lead at the 3:28 mark and Tennessee could come no closer.
The win was the 900th in 44 seasons of play for LSU, though just its 15th against Tennessee in 63 tries (3-7 under Fargas). LSU is now 900-447 overall.
The Lady Tigers return to action Thursday when they host No. 21 Georgia at 7 p.m.