After dropping two of three games to LSU in Knoxville three weeks ago, the Tennessee softball team got even in a big way Thursday night in the Southeastern Conference tournament.
Fifth-seeded Tennessee hammered six extra-base hits — including three home runs in the final four innings and three doubles — to take a 7-5 victory over fourth-seeded LSU in the tournament quarterfinals in Tiger Park.
While LSU won the tournament tiebreaker in taking the earlier series, Tennessee broke the tie that mattered Thursday night with its hot bats — racking up 11 hits off Tigers pitchers Carley Hoover and Allie Walljasper.
Tennessee (41-13) advanced to Friday’s semifinals, where the Lady Vols will face top-ranked and No. 2 seed Florida at 4:30 p.m. after Alabama and Auburn meet in the first semifinal at 2 p.m.
On the other hand, eighth-ranked LSU (44-11) will have to wait until 9 p.m. Sunday to learn its next opponent in the NCAA tournament.
The Tigers are expected to host a four-team regional at Tiger Park next weekend and, with the No. 2 RPI in the nation, could land one of eight national seeds when the bids are announced.
Tennessee got solo home runs from Meghan Gregg and Megan Geer, a two-run blast from Taylor Koenig and a two-run double from Rainey Gaffin, one of the three the Lady Vols had, to secure the victory.
Twice, big extra-base hits helped Tennessee come from behind as the Lady Vols erased deficits of 2-0 and 5-3 against the heavy-hitting Tigers.
“I thought Tennessee’s offense was amazing,” LSU coach Beth Torina said. “They just continued to pound the ball all over the park.
“They had a great strategy and it worked well for them,” she said. “It was something I was concerned about coming in. We knew what a great offense they had … and they showed every bit of that.”
But it was LSU that jumped on Tennessee.
The Tigers got to Lady Vols starter Gretchen Aucoin early, picking up run-scoring singles from Bianka Bell and Emily Griggs in the first and second innings.
Down 2-0, Tennessee struck back for three quick runs off Hoover in the fourth.
Hoover allowed just one hit in the first three innings, a leadoff double by nine-hole hitter Tory Lewis in the third, and was sailing along after getting the first two batters in the fourth.
That’s where Hoover, an All-SEC pick this season as a freshman, ran into trouble.
Gregg, who had the game-winning, two-run single in the bottom of the seventh inning of a 5-4 victory over Kentucky on Wednesday night, belted a solo homer to center field to cut Tennessee’s deficit in half.
Then, after a single by Lexi Overstreet, Koenig belted a low line drive well over the right-center field wall to give Tennessee its first lead at 3-2.
Torina said the difference came when Tennessee started swinging early in the count and Hoover and Walljasper didn’t adjust to the Lady Vols’ approach.
“The difference was them being so aggressive early in counts,” Torina said. “They swung early in the count, we didn’t make an adjustment, and we continued to throw strikes and hittable pitches early in the count. They continued to hammer them all over the field.”
Tennessee co-head coach Karen Weekly said Hoover, who gave up six hits and three earned runs, was solid in the first 3.2 innings before the Lady Vols finally got going and had 10 hits off her and Walljasper in the final 3.1 innings.
“(Hoover) was just getting ahead in the count. … When she got ahead, she was able to mix her pitches more, move the ball more, change her speeds,” Weekly said. “What we needed to do was jump on the strikes early, and we didn’t do that initially. That’s what changed everything for us, when we started to jump on pitches early.”
The long homers by Gregg and Koenig seemed to get the rest of the lineup going.
“(Hoover) has a lot of velocity on her ball,” Koenig said. “We were trying to do too much with it. All we really needed to do was be short to contact and jump on her first pitch.”
LSU rebounded with three runs in the bottom of the fifth inning to regain the lead at 5-3.
Bell opened the inning with a long home run to the back of the berm in left field, and Constance Quinn and Sydney Griggs delivered back-to-back run-scoring singles.
But Tennessee kept up its assault after Torina brought in Walljasper.
In the sixth, Gaffin hit a two-run double to the base of the wall, and Shaliyah Geathers brought her home with another double.
Tennessee capped its 11-hit night when Geer belted a leadoff homer in the seventh to give her team some insurance before LSU went down in order in the bottom half of the inning.
“I thought we played well; it just didn’t go our way at the end,” said Bell, who had two of LSU’s seven hits off four Tennessee pitchers. “I just wish we could have found a way to get on base and execute better at the end.”
Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter @MicklesAdvocate.