BATON ROUGE, La. - Tennessee coach Holly Warlick hoped the 12th-ranked Lady Volunteers would prove last weekend's lopsided loss at Missouri was a fluke.
It nearly looked more like the beginning of a pattern until Bashaara Graves strung together one clutch play after another in the final seconds of a thriller against longtime rival LSU.
Graves made a late steal and soon after scored inside with a second left to help Tennessee narrowly avert a second-straight upset with a 64-62 victory over the Lady Tigers on Thursday night.
Graves said afterward that her team still had a lot of work to do, but added, "This is a great statement game to let everyone know that Tennessee isn't going to quit."
Tennessee (18-5, 9-1 Southeastern Conference), which had lost 80-63 at Missouri, trailed LSU 62-59 after Theresa Plaisance's baseline jumper put LSU (13-10, 4-6) in position to give coach Nikki Caldwell her first victory over her alma mater in four tries.
Then Graves, a 6-foot-2 freshman who has quickly established herself as one of Tennessee's go-to players, rescued the Lady Vols.
First, Graves scored inside in transition to make it 62-61 with 15 seconds left. Tennessee then fouled Plaisance, who uncharacteristically missed the front end of one-and-one free throws.
Tennessee's Cierra Burdick tied it by making one of two free throws with 7 seconds left. Then, Graves stole the ball as LSU's Bianca Lutley tried to corral an inbound pass that was initially tipped by Meighan Simmons. Graves' first shot was blocked by Plaisance, but Tennessee got her the ball again underneath and her next shot rolled in as she fell backward and teammates started to pile on her in celebration before realizing they still had to defend LSU's final inbound pass. The Lady Vols' lapse allowed Adrienne Webb to get off a desperation shot from just a few feet outside the 3-point line, but it fell short, allowing the Lady Vols to carry on with their celebration as the stunned LSU crowd groaned.
"A lot of credit to the Tennessee team for not quitting," Caldwell said. "The game is very simple. You've got to make layups and got to make free throws. When you're in a spot to solidify a lead, you've got to make those plays, but I was proud of our team for fighting, continuing to fight and putting themselves in position to win this basketball game.
"We did a lot of good things and I don't want a last minute shot to overshadow the fight and heart that our team had tonight."
Graves finished with 17 points, a performance made even more impressive by the fact that LSU did not have to defend Tennessee's 6-3 front court player Isabelle Harrison, who averages 10 points and 8.3 rebounds, but missed her third straight game with a knee injury. Simmons led Tennessee with 18 points and Burdick, in only her third game back from a broken hand, narrowly missed a double-double with nine points and nine rebounds.
"I'm sure it was a fun game to watch. It was tough to coach," Warlick said. "LSU has a great tradition, a strong tradition. Every time we play each other it's a battle. I don't care where we play.
"Nikki's doing a great job, and I know she needed this win, but we both needed the win," Warlick added.
The finish was a cruel one for Plaisance, who nearly led the Lady Tigers to a thrilling upset with 20 points and nine rebounds.
"She was awesome," Warlick said of Plaisance. "She's a force to be reckoned with."
Lutley had 13 points and Danielle Ballard 10 for LSU, which has lost two straight and three of four.
The lead changed 14 times, there were five ties and neither team led by more than 3 in the second half.
Early on, however, it hardly looked to be a thriller.
The Lady Vols raced to a 9-0 lead while LSU missed its first eight shots.
Plaisance finally got LSU on the board with a basket inside, but Tennessee's lead grew as large as 11 when Simmons' jumper made it 13-2.
It looked like the Lady Vols would have an easy night when suddenly the game turned on its head. Web and Lutley hit consecutive 3s and Kenny added a baseline jumper, sparking a stunning 20-5 LSU run.
Plaisance added a three-point play on a strong inside basket as she was fouled by Burdick, and Ballard's jumper gave the Lady Tigers their first lead at 17-16 with 8:39 left in the opening half.
The rest of the half was close thereafter, with Burdick's bucket in the paint giving the Lady Vols a 28-26 lead going into the locker room.