KNOXVILLE — LSU spent the first 35½ minutes of Thursday's game building a seemingly insurmountable lead.
The 16th-ranked Lady Tigers spent the final 4½ minutes nearly giving it all back.
LSU overcame its struggles down the stretch to hang on for an 80-77 road win against No. 5 Tennessee. Danielle Ballard matched a career high with 25 points as the Lady Tigers (11-2, 1-0 SEC) ended a seven-game losing streak in this rivalry and snapped the Lady Vols' string of 16 consecutive victories in SEC openers.
"We knew it was going to be a hard-fought game," LSU coach Nikki Caldwell said. "I'm just so proud of our team for really taking our game plan and trying to execute it. Players stepped up and made big plays. We knew that Tennessee was going to come at us and was going to make a run because that's who they are. I can't say enough for how proud I am of this group for really just laying it on the line and being courageous to come into this type of environment and come out with a win."
LSU produced this surprise on a night when Tennessee (11-2, 0-1) retired the No. 3 jersey of Candace Parker, who led Tennessee to national titles in 2007 and 2008.
LSU coach Nikki Caldwell and Tennessee coach Holly Warlick were both assistants on former Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt's staff during Parker's college career. Caldwell played on Tennessee's 1991 national championship team and was born in Oak Ridge, Tenn., about 25 miles from Thompson-Boling Arena.
Before the game, Parker said it was appropriate the ceremony came when the Lady Vols played LSU.
"It's very fitting," Parker said. "Nikki Caldwell was a huge reason why I came to the University of Tennessee and why I became a Lady Vol. It was an honor to play under that coaching staff."
Tennessee, which trailed 75-59 with 4:37 left, had a chance to tie the game in the final minute. LSU was clinging to a 78-77 lead when Tennessee's Isabelle Harrison missed the second of two free throws with 15.9 seconds left. After Raigyne Moncrief got the rebound and made two free throws, Andraya Carter missed a potential tying 3-pointer in the closing seconds.
"Maybe I just had too much thinking in my head," Harrison said of her missed free throw. "I should have concentrated. It frustrates me a lot."
DaShawn Harden had 17 points and shot 4 of 7 from 3-point range for LSU, which also got 15 points from Theresa Plaisance and 14 from Jeanne Kenney.
Harrison matched a career high with 26 points and also had 10 rebounds for Tennessee, which has lost two of its last three games. Ariel Massengale added 10 points and 12 assists, while Meighan Simmons scored 15. Tennessee forward Bashaara Graves played just 17 minutes after getting hurt early in the game, and she wore an orange sleeve on her right leg while on the floor in the second half.
LSU erased a 44-40 halftime deficit by going on an 11-2 spurt to open the second half. Plaisance scored seven points during that surge, including a 3-pointer that put the Tigers in front 45-44 with 19:14 remaining. Tennessee clawed back and tied it at 55, but LSU responded with a 20-4 run that featured a trio of 3-pointers from Harden.
The game seemed out of reach for Tennessee with 4:37 remaining when Simmons and Lady Vols coach Holly Warlick each picked up technical fouls after Simmons was called for a personal foul. The sequence caused Simmons to foul out of the game, and Kenney made four straight free throws to give LSU a 75-59 advantage.
"Our defense wasn't very highly motivated to play until probably like the last six minutes of the game," Warlick said.
But the Lady Vols stormed back by turning up the defensive pressure and forcing LSU into numerous turnovers.
The struggles down the stretch brought back memories of last year's Tennessee-LSU game, when the Lady Vols rallied in the final minute to win 64-62 on Graves' basket.
But this time, LSU found a way to beat Tennessee for the first time since winning 66-63 in Baton Rouge on Feb. 26, 2009. LSU's last victory over Tennessee in Knoxville was a 78-62 decision on Feb. 14, 2008.
"It wouldn't be LSU basketball if we didn't almost lose a lead," Kenney said. "But we finished strong. That's something we definitely worked on and worked to improve upon since the preseason.