Duluth, GA -- One Tennessee player in particular spoke some pearls of wisdom after Saturday's 77-65 win over LSU, which were both succinct and profound:
"Defense...hustle, heart and attitude; those are things you can bring every single night no matter what."
Spoken like a true veteran, right?
Those words actually came from Andraya Carter, the redshirt freshman for the Lady Vols.
Her mental make up along with Jordan Reynolds' was instrumental in helping Tennessee (25-5) attain victory on Friday; their steadiness showed maturity beyond their teenage years.
"I can't say enough about those two (Carter and Reynolds)," said Tennessee coach Holly Warlick. "I don't care if Andraya and Jordan are freshmen. All I care about is they get it done, and they're getting it done."
However, in the beginning of the game, nothing was getting done up to the standards of the Lady Vols.
One would suspect that LSU (19-12) would have a little bit of a lull or just fatigue after playing 24 hours ago. However, the Lady Tigers came out with a passion that initially stunned Tennessee. Before the game really got going, the Lady Vols were down 12-4, and by the second media timeout, it was 22-10.
And it was primarily because of one thing: the three-point shot.
LSU had a plethora of sharpshooters making threes, but the main sniper beyond the arc was none other than center Theresa Plaisance. The 6-foot-5 center put on an offensive clinic by showcasing her offensive versatility, including her long range prowess.
Tennessee finally withstood the haymakers that were being flung by LSU, and started their own counter-punching. Cierra Burdick really picked it up for the Lady Vols with her physicality and strong offensive put backs
But the main facilitator for Tennessee came from one of the members of the "Oregon Trail", Jordan Reynolds. Once inserted in the game, she played with poise well beyond her years and was able to match the intensity of the moment.
With Tennessee down 12, Reynolds got a steal, went behind the back coast-to-coast and made a nice pass to Harrison for the layup. That play galvanized the Lady Vols immensely.
"I needed to make a play" said a smiling Reynolds. "It didn't put us [in the lead], but we went on a run after that, and it really helped our team. I'm just happy [that I could make a play].
Even though Reynolds' offensive play seemed to ignite her teammates and fan base, it was their trademark defense that really changed the complexion of the whole game. In the first half, LSU essentially got every shot they coveted and desired.
The Lady Tigers not only shot 50% from the field but also shot the same percentage from three-point land. Yet in the second-half, those same open looks were not there and LSU struggled mightily. They made only 29% of their attempts from the field in the second-half, while shooting a putrid 16% from three.
"We talked a lot about our defense," Warlick said. "We gave up seven threes [in the first half], you can't do that. I thought the second half when we made our run, we didn't give up any threes. We made them take difficult shots.
"We talk a lot about our defensive play. This is a testament to them understanding why it was so important because that's why we got back into the game."
Not only did they get back into the game, Tennessee took their play to another stratosphere. Their energy picked up, and they started playing with the exuberance needed to take complete control of the game.
"I think that's something we've dealt with all year, we've been down at halftime before," said junior forward Cierra Burdick. "I think this team responds best to adversity, we got punched in the first-half, and it was just a matter of buckling down on the defensive end.
"When we really made defense a priority, that's when we came out on offense, getting easy buckets. That's what really got us back into the game and was able to take the lead"
LSU was up two with 7:51 left when Reynolds got a steal that led to a Meighan Simmons layup. Then Jeanne Kenney - who couldn't miss in first half - missed a three-pointer. Then Reynolds assisted on another Simmons basket, and then All-SEC first team forward Isabelle Harrison started to dominate. Before the Lady Tigers knew anything, they were down 15 with 3:25 left.
And it all started with the altruism and self-sacrifice of two freshmen: Reynolds and Carter. LSU's starting backcourt combined to shoot 50% in the first-half. In the second-half they shot 25% and that's because of one reason: Carter - she reduced their efficiency in half almost single-handedly. She had the daunting task of guarding all three at various times, and Carter responded in a major way.
"Defense is my favorite, favorite part of the game," said Carter passionately. "My high school coach, he actually calls it a controllable factor. If you're not hitting shots, you can't control it, you could have perfect form (and) the ball might not go in.
"So it's easy, why wouldn't you love defense? You can bring it every night, that's why I love it."