GREENVILLE, S.C. (AP)Tennessee coach Kellie Harper called time out with her team down 27-10 and on the verge of getting run out of the building by No. 4 LSU.
“I didn’t yell. I asked, ‘Let’s talk about where we’re at right now,’” Harper told her struggling players. “Really asked them to dig deep and what they wanted.”
The answer? To stick around the Southeastern Conference tournament a little longer.
Rickea Jackson had 26 points and Jordan Horston 17 as the Lady Vols (23-10) rallied from 17 points down to defeat the Tigers (28-2) and make their first SEC finals since 2015.
“We just had better focus,” Harper said. “You just get a little momentum.”
Jackson and Horston both had double-doubles, each with 10 rebounds in the improbable comeback.
LSU seemed in control, up 40-26 at halftime with Angel Reese and Alexis Morris leading the way. But Tennessee, behind Jackson and Horston, steadily reeled in the Tigers.
The Lady Vols will face No. 1 South Carolina on Sunday for the league crown.
Jackson’s basket tied it at 56 and Horston followed with two straight jumpers to give Tennessee its first lead at 60-58 with 5:12 to play.
The Tigers got within 68-67 on Morris’ steal and breakaway layup with 1:24 left. They had the ball in the final 15 seconds when Reese was called for an offensive foul on her drive to the basket.
“I thought we were shooting two foul throws,” LSU coach Kim Mulkey said.
After Tess Darby made one of two free throws, the Tigers got a final chance. But Morris’ 35 footer at the buzzer was off-target.
The Lady Vols stormed the court and jumped around in celebration. They’ll have to collect themselves quickly and refocus to face undefeated South Carolina for the trophy.
“It feels good” making the finals, Horston said. “But the job is not done.”
Reese finished with 22 points and 11 rebounds her 28th double-double in 30 games this season. Her six made free throws gave her 204 this year to break LSU’s single-season mark set by Maree Jackson in 1977-78.
Morris ended with 20 points for the Tigers.
Morris said her teammates have to focus on what’s ahead and not what happened at the SEC Tournament.
“They probably won’t like me for the next week,” Morris said of her plans to get LSU on track for a deep NCAA run. “I am one of the players who can make my team better. We needed more tonight from certain players, certain people and we’ll get it out of them this week coming up.”
Tennessee: The Lady Vols may have improved their chance to be a top-four seed in the NCAA Tournament and host the first two rounds at their site. The team was not among the top 16 teams in the last NCAA reveal. This could push them up a line.
LSU: Tigers coach Mulkey has made it clear that LSU won’t have “arrived” as a top-tier program until they win championships. That chance disappeared with their second-half meltdown. “We’ve got some work to do,” Morris said. “We’ve got a lot of young ones on our team. Experience, toughness, we’ve to a week to prepare for (NCAA) playoffs and that’s all we’re focused on right now.”
South Carolina has owned the series with the Lady Vols in recent years, winning six of the last seven games in the series. The Gamecocks were also the opponents in Tennessee’s last SEC finals appearance, South Carolina winning its first league tournament in 2015. The teams played at Tennessee this year with the Gamecocks winning 73-60.
LSU’s Reese was not among the 15 finalists for this year’s Wooden Award, announced earlier Saturday. South Carolina’s Aliyah Boston, last year’s winner, was the only SEC player on the list. Mulkey said many awards have academic or community service components, but said Reese was in good academic standing at LSU.
Tennessee: Takes on South Carolina on Sunday.
LSU: Awaits its NCAA Tournament destination.
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