So Tennessee’s leading scorer wasn’t going to be rattled by the sight of her 10th-ranked Lady Vols blowing a 21-point halftime lead, or the sound of LSU’s home crowd going wild over the prospect of a historic comeback over an old nemesis.
Simmons highlighted a 31-point performance with a clutch 3-pointer in the final minute, and Tennessee held off the relentless Lady Tigers, 72-67, on Thursday night.
“That’s her,” Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said of Simmons. “She’s a gutsy kid ... and she makes big plays for us.”
Simmons hit five 3s in all and also made a couple of free throws to help seal the victory for the Lady Vols (23-5, 12-2 Southeastern Conference), who won for the ninth time in 10 games.
“The coaches just told us to attack and I really wasn’t thinking anything. I was just thinking about scoring,” Simmons said. “They were big shots, but I thank the coaches for just being confident in me.”
Cierra Burdick added a career-high 22 points and 10 rebounds, and Isabelle Harrison had 11 points and 11 rebounds for Tennessee, which had to rescue the victory after allowing LSU to tie the score with 3:28 to go.
“I definitely think it was a big deal that we just kept grinding,” Tennessee guard Andraya Carter said. “A lot of times a team would fold when you have such a good lead to end the first half and it starts to slip away.
“We stayed together. All our huddles were positive. Everything we were saying to each other was positive,” Carter continued. “It’s a big deal because we will have close games” in the postseason.
Jeanne Kenney scored 17 of her 21 points in the second half, including two 3s and the tying free throws during LSU’s late 10-0 run. Theresa Plaisance added 20 points and 11 rebounds for the Lady Tigers, who’ve now lost five straight for the first time in 19 years, but spoke in prideful tones.
“We came together and that’s something I haven’t seen in a very long time, and I was very proud of how we did come back,” Kenney said. “I couldn’t ask for better teammates for this game.”
Trailing 42-21 at halftime, LSU managed to make the game far more competitive over the final 20 minutes, and Tennessee helped by turning the ball over 11 times in the half.
Plaisance, who’d started 2 of 10 form the field, hit a pair of 3s early in the second half, the first capping a 7-0 run to start the period.
Kenney’s second 3 of the half pulled LSU to 59-52 with 5:53 left. She pumped both arms at her side as the crowd rose to its feet. Two possessions later, Kenney buried another 3 from the right corner, and DaShawn Harden’s steal of Carter’s pass, which Harden turned into a fast-break layup, gave the Lady Tigers eight straight points to make it a one-possession game at 59-57 with 4:35 still left.
Kenney completed the comeback, tying the score on two free throws about a minute later.
LSU coach Nikki Caldwell said the second half highlighted her team’s resilience, competitiveness and determination.
“It showed a team that didn’t give up. It showed a team that stayed together and obviously it showed a team that was able to come back from adversity and potentially put themselves in a position to win. So we’re going to focus in on that,” Caldwell said. “We’re going to turn the corner. I believe it’s this game. I saw a different team tonight.”
Simmons’ free throws broke the tie a minute later, and her 3 with 57 seconds left made it 68-63.
“It separated us right there,” Warlick said. “I mean, the game was on the line.”
Tennessee had a 10-point lead just more than 4 minutes into the game when Burdick’s 3-point play on a layup as she was fouled made it 12-2. The lead was up to 20 when Simmons’s third 3-pointer of the half made it 28-8.
LSU struggled in seemingly all areas during the opening 20 minutes, when the Lady Tigers shot 22.2 percent (6 of 27), turned the ball over 11 times and were outrebounded 26-14.
By halftime Tennessee appeared to be in complete command. Simmons had 19 points, eclipsing her average of 15.7 points per game, and Burdick has 15, nearly double her average of 8.3 points. Tennessee, meanwhile, had shot 50 percent (17 of 34) as a team in building its big halftime lead.