KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — With three seconds left in the game, No. 8 LSU led No. 16 Tennessee by three points. The Lady Volunteers had the ball out of bounds on their side the court.
Tigers coach Kim Mulkey turned to strategy, putting 6-foot-5 Hannah Gusters on Jordan Walker, who was inbounding the ball, as a distraction.
“We left (Tess) Darby (one of Tennessee’s top 3-point shooters) wide open, but with a big on the ball, they were distracted and never saw her,” Mulkey said.
Then Khayla Pointer came up with the steal and sealed LSU’s 57-54 victory Sunday. It gave the Tigers the No. 2 seed in this week’s SEC Tournament, while the Lady Volunteers settled for No. 3. Both will have double-byes and won’t play until Friday.
Jailin Cherry led the Tigers (25-4, 13-3 Southeastern Conference) with 14 points and 10 rebounds. Pointer finished with 12 points and 14 boards, and Autumn Newby added 12 points and 9 rebounds.
Tennessee (22-7, 11-5) was led by Tamari Key with 12 points and 9 rebounds. Rae Burrell scored 11 and Alexus Day had 10.
Tennessee shot just 3 of 17 (18%) in the first quarter and fell behind 22-10, and LSU never surrendered the lead the entire game.
“The most important thing about this game was how we started,” said Mulkey. “We had confidence. We shot it well, rebounded well. The only way to win here is to rebound the ball.”
Newby had 10 points in that first quarter.
“We felt like (the Tigers) were making every shot they took,” Tennessee coach Kellie Harper said. “We had to go to a zone (defense). We had to do something to get them out of their rhythm. We were on our heels. We can’t play like that.”
Harper turned her team’s focus inside to Key, who had just one point in the first quarter.
“We did a much better job looking to (Key) in the second half,” Harper said. “We’re better when we get (the ball) to her.”
LSU led by as many as 18 points in the first half. Tennessee cut it to eight, 44-36, after three quarters. The Tigers had a spurt that got the difference back to 14, but that’s when the Lady Vols made a surge.
LSU’s lead was two points with 25 seconds to play. Tennessee found Key down low, but she missed a shot from the blocks. After one free throw, the stage was set for the final drama with 3 seconds to play.
LSU’s victory was only its fourth ever in Knoxville.
“I don’t know when this is going to end,” said Mulkey. “But this group just grinds. It knows how to work.”
LSU: This is the first time since 2009 that LSU’s women’s basketball team has been ranked in the Top 10 and the first time since 2006 that LSU played Tennessee as the higher-ranked team. … Guard Alexis Morris sustained a knee injury in the Tigers’ last game, a win over Alabama. She was averaging 16.3 points a game before the injury. She will be out of action until the NCAA Tournament.
Tennessee: The Lady Vols have had their share of injuries during the season-ending stretch: Forward Keyen Green (knee) and guard Jordan Horston (elbow). … Key came into Sunday with 105 career blocks, good for a tie for ninth all-time in the SEC, and added three. … Tennessee’s game with South Carolina on ABC last week drew an audience of 876,000, the largest for a women’s basketball game since 2017.
LSU and Tennessee will play in the quarterfinal round of the SEC Tournament on Friday in Nashville, Tenn.
More AP women’s college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/womens-college-basketball and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-womens-college-basketball-poll and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25