WINNER: Auburn, 71-65
NEXT: No. 5 seed Tennessee on Saturday, 6:30 p.m. Eastern
The Tigers received their regular season trophy right before tipoff but had to hold off Ole Miss in the final two minutes to secure the 71-65 win in Auburn's opening game of the SEC Tournament.
DeWanna Bonner led Auburn with 32 points and 13 rebounds and became the school's all-time scoring leader with 2,084 points, passing Becky Jackson's previous record of 2,068 (1980-84). She also moved into second on Auburn's career rebounding list with 1,019 boards.
"It's a tremendous honor to be able to be up there with the top scorers," Bonner said. "I'm excited, but I'm not focused on it, ready to play the next game and keep adding to those points.
Auburn, 28-2, jumped out to a 10-2 lead and extended it to 25-15 with 7:38 left, but Ole Miss chipped away and trailed by just six at halftime, 35-29. The Tigers started the second half the same way and led by 18 points, 51-33, within six minutes after the break.
Auburn had a 16-point lead, 60-44, with 6:19 left to play, but Ole Miss mounted a comeback by hitting some three-pointers and getting to the rim. Ole Miss three times got within three points in the final 1:19, but jumpers by Bonner and Whitney Boddie and two final free throws by Bonner sealed the win.
"I think we got a little winded, and we had a little difficulty finishing things out, really on both ends of the floor at that time point," Auburn Coach Nell Fortner said. "I really attributed it to that. I just think we were winded. But we just hung so tough, and that was the neat thing."
Auburn was led by Bonner's 32 points and also got 15 from Boddie and 10 from Alli Smalley.
As a team Auburn shot 45.8 percent overall despite shooting just 27.3 percent from behind the arc. Bonner (12-19) and Boddie (7-15) were responsible for the shooting accuracy as Auburn was just 3-11 from long range with Bonner hitting 1-2.
"It is a luxury, there is no doubt about it, a couple of Lamborghinis right there," Fortner said. "I have tremendous confidence in 'em. That's one of the neatest things, to walk into a gym and know you're going to play a game and have such tremendous confidence in your team. These two players have been with me, starting every game they've played at Auburn, so the confidence and the trust that has been built between us is really a nice thing to have in coaching."
Ole Miss was led by Shawn Goff, who had 25 points and 10 rebounds. Bianca Thomas, who hit six three-pointers on Thursday against Arkansas, was just 2-10 from behind the arc but got in double digits with 12 points and also had six boards and two steals.
Thomas was a focal point of the Auburn defense.
"That was the plan," Fortner said. "It was to absolutely smother her as best we could, and I thought we did a nice job of it. She's a player that can change a whole game in about two minutes, so you cannot let her get on track. She is a tremendous shooter, tremendous shooter, and it really makes a huge difference for their team."
Sherell Hobbs drew the primary defensive assignment on Thomas.
"I wasn't assigned to guarding her, but I did get switched out to her in the zone a little bit," Boddie said. "She is sneaky. You don't think she is going to shoot it, but she kind of chills and, boom, in your face. You have to play her tight and you have to take your hat off to Sherell. She played her tight."
Ole Miss, 17-14, shot 40.9 percent overall for the game and 21.7 percent from long range and hung with Auburn on the boards, getting edged by just one, 38-37. Ole Miss got 12 second-chance points to 13 for Auburn and scored more in the paint, 34-30.
"I'm extremely proud of the way my team played today," Ole Miss Coach Renee Ladner said. "We've been down before and sometimes didn't fight back, but there was no question today that we were going to fight with everything we had to the end of the game.
"There is nothing easy about playing Auburn at any time whether you're close or behind. I just think they're a team when they put their foot on you they can continue to do that because they have weapons at five positions."
Ladner said the sticky defense on Thomas upset the team's equilibrium to start the game.
"It affected us at the beginning of the game because we were shaky," Ladner said. "We knew they were going to stick somebody on her like a piece of Velcro – for the most part that's what they did."
Goff stepped into the void for the Rebels.
"She absolutely did," Ladner said.
"I wanted to play as hard as I could and you don't want to go into what can be your senior game and know that you didn't play hard for the team, so that's what I tried to do."
Auburn will next play Tennessee in the semifinal and will try to keep its quest going for a double-double – the SEC regular season and tourney trophies. The Lady Vols will be seeking to avenge an earlier loss.
"I thought today's game was a tremendous show of great passion and heart from this team," Fortner said. "There is no easy game in the SEC Tournament, doesn't matter what day you play on, what game it is, there is no easy game. Doesn't matter what your seed is, there are always going to be close games."
WINNER: Vanderbilt, 69-61
NEXT: No. 3 seed LSU on Saturday, 9 p.m. Eastern
Vanderbilt starting its quarterfinal game scorching the nets and had a double-digit lead within six minutes over Georgia, which entered the tourney on the NCAA bubble and may be left out of the Big Dance this March.
"I rather suspect that we're at the table, but often times these things come down to how conference tournaments go, upsets, and those kind of things, so I really don't know and I haven't studied it a great deal lately," Georgia Coach Andy Landers said. "I shouldn't comment on it.
"It wasn't the reason for me that we came out here. I thought we had an excellent chance if we played well to win this tournament, so I really haven't thought about the other deal very much."
Vanderbilt, 22-8, the second-place team in the SEC, had its NCAA ticket punched before it got to Little Rock, and the Commodores were ready for postseason play.
"They cut me off and started running out the door, which is always a good sign because I like to talk," Vandy Coach Melanie Balcomb said. "I didn't have to motivate 'em; they were ready to play. They came out, ran out, and I thought that was huge. The lead we got, and then the rest of the game there were times we started playing not to lose, and then they turned it right back up where they needed to be."
Vandy started the game by shooting 67 percent from the field and maintained its 10-point lead at halftime, 35-25, despite cooling off to 42.4 percent (14-33), because Georgia had connected on just 37 percent (10-27) of its shots. The Commodores also hit four 3-pointers in the first half with two from Christina Wirth and one each from Merideth Marsh and Tia Gibbs.
Gibbs has moved into a key reserve role for the Commodores after post player Hannah Tuomi went down last week with a stress fracture and Vandy has deployed a four-guard lineup.
"They're not a lot different really," Landers said. "Tuomi is probably going to have more of a post-up presence, but once either of them have the ball four or five feet away from the basket, they're similar. They're going to attack you with the dribble, and they're going to be good offensive rebounders."
"Today I thought where we just got our tail kicked was their guards out-rebounded our guards on the offensive end. I think their guards got nine or 10 of their offensive rebounds, which I'm not surprised that that happened altogether."
Georgia actually prevailed overall on the boards, 39-34, but Vandy got 16 rebounds on the offensive end and several key ones late in the second half while holding off a Georgia comeback.
"I looked at that (stat), and I was surprised," Balcomb said. "I thought we out-rebounded them, and we didn't."
Georgia, 18-13, got the lead into single digits on the first possession of the second half when Porsha Phillips hit a jumper, and the lead stayed under 10 for the rest of the game and twice was just two points. With 1:27 left in the game, Vandy had a one-point lead, 62-61, after a layup by Georgia's Angel Robinson. But Marsh hit a three-pointer to extend the lead to four points, and Wirth made four free throws down the stretch for the final 69-61 margin.
"I definitely think we raised our level of our intensity," Wirth said. "Coach told us not to have that mentality, play to lose."
"We got back to what got us here in the first place, and that was attacking," Jennifer Risper said. "So when we are in situations like this we use that experience. When they did come back, we just came back."
Vanderbilt was led by Wirth with 23 points. Gibbs had 13 points, and Marsh added 12 on four 3-pointers. The Commodores connected on just 34.6 percent of their long range shots, but hit nine of them.
"We didn't defend the two things that Vandy does and needs to do well to win," Landers said. "We didn't defend very well the three. They put up 26 of those. And we didn't defend very well the drive. They got the ball into the paint off the dribble drive far too much."
Vanderbilt also helped itself with just three turnovers, a SEC tourney record for fewest in a game. The previous record was four set by Arkansas against Vanderbilt in 2002.
Georgia was led by Robinson, who scored a career-high 29 points on 13-18 shooting and pulled down 16 rebounds. Angela Puleo and Christy Marshall had nine points each. Danielle Taylor added six points and six boards. Ashley Houts played the full 40 minutes as usual but was held to just three points. She did have five rebounds and three assists to just one turnover.
"I think Ashley is a tremendous player," Balcomb said. "I think she brings so much to that team. One of the things she does is she runs the show. She controls the tempo, controls how they run the thing.
"I know from working on offense with our team a lot, you want to be in a flow. So what we wanted to do was not just take out Ashley Houts – we knew we couldn't guard their size inside – we had to take them out of their flow. And if you disrupt Ashley Houts then you disrupt Georgia. That was really what the goal was and the plan was."
Vandy will next play LSU in the SEC semifinals on Saturday.
Georgia will head back to Athens and wait on the NCAA Selection Committee decision.
"Like Coach said, we don't know, we sit and hope that we do get in," Taylor said.
GAME THREE: No. 4 seed Florida vs. No. 5 seed Tennessee
WINNER: Tennessee, 71-67
NEXT: No. 1 seed Auburn on Saturday, 6:30 p.m. Eastern
See separate story on this site.
GAME FOUR: No. 3 seed LSU vs. No. 6 seed Mississippi State
WINNER: LSU, 63-58
NEXT: No. 2 seed Vanderbilt on Saturday, 9 p.m. Eastern.
The final game of the second day ended with LSU getting its first win of the season over Mississippi State, which swept the regular season series, with a hard-fought 63-58 victory.
The Lady Tigers held on after the Lady Bulldogs wiped out a 14-point deficit in the second half and pulled to within three points, 61-58, with 33 seconds remaining.
LSU, 18-9, was led by Allison Hightower with 23 points. She scored in an assortment of ways – drives to the rim, in transition and with her left-handed runner in the lane.
"Hightower can go," Mississippi State Coach Sharon Fanning said. "I don't think I've seen in the women's game, I haven't seen a prettier shot. They just float in, float in and go left. I think she has tried to take a younger team that they have and really carry them."
"When the coach calls every play at the end of the game for you, you ought to carry it on your back," LSU Coach Van Chancellor said. "No, I'm kidding you. She got the ball, we screened for her, they just didn't have an answer for her. She played unbelievably well tonight. I thought in the first half she came in here and wanted it so bad, she tried too hard. She got in foul trouble and that was a blessing in disguise.
"We held on for awhile and that allowed us to rest her. … She is the real thing. If we were advertising Coca-Cola, Allison Hightower was Coca-Cola.
When Hightower was asked about the win, she said, "We got the victory, we have to play well against Vandy (Saturday) night and get ready for them."
"That's about as much as she has said all year, quiet girl," Chancellor said.
LaSondra Barrett, the co-SEC Freshman of the Year, added 11 points and five rebounds for the Lady Tigers.
LSU shot 51.0 percent for the game and hit 2-6 from behind the arc. Mississippi State shot 32.7 percent for the game and hit just 2-13 from long range. Both teams capitalized off the other's turnovers – 19 points apiece with 17 miscues for LSU and 15 for Mississippi State – and both teams recorded six blocks with three from Lady Bulldog Armelie Lumanu and three from Lady Tiger Destini Hughes.
"I was pleased with our intensity," said Fanning, whose own intensity was on display when she got a second half technical foul. "We sort of got in a hole. I feel like our intensity and our focus early on wasn't where it needed to be. But I was proud of the way we competed. … We have to understand as a team, as a team we need maturity and focus, regardless of what time you go to bed, regardless of the scenario, you come ready to go."
The Lady Bulldogs had beaten LSU twice in the regular season – at Baton Rouge and in Starkville – and Chancellor declared he had seen enough of them until next season but Mississippi State deserves an NCAA berth.
"There is no doubt in my mind that they're an NCAA Tournament team," Chancellor said. "I'll tell you how to successfully diet. If it tastes good spit it out. And let me tell you about the NCAA, throw all the resumes out and say, ‘Who do I not want to play in the NCAA playoffs?' I'm telling you right now the Mississippi State Lady Bulldogs. I've had enough. I don't want to play them for another year."
FIRST BASKET OF DAY TWO: Scored by SEC Player of the Year DeWanna Bonner of Auburn with a three-pointer from the top of the key.
BUSIEST FANS: A group from Ole Miss in the family section who coached every possession calling for defense, setting up the offense, pointing out where screens needed to be set and hollering to push the ball. They also were offering helpful advice for the officials.
As the Rebels fell further behind in the second half they shouted advice to Ole Miss Coach Renee Ladner.
Ole Miss has some colorful fans. The "Hotty Toddy queens" were in attendance with blonde wigs, feather boas, tiaras, black-framed glasses and white shirts. Among the five women are sisters Linda Ross Aldy and Janet Ross Caulder. They are the sister of former Ole Miss Coach Carol Ross, who is a commentator for Fox Sports at the SEC tourney. Ross' niece, Lindsey Burney, is also a member of the court, along with friends Silvia Williams and Dixie Everette.
WHOA NELLIE The relatively mild-mannered Nell Fortner came close to getting a technical foul in the first half of Auburn's game after she thought a foul against DeWanna Bonner should have been intentional. Bonner was fouled hard and crashed to the floor beside the basket support. Fortner expressed her displeasure in no uncertain terms with a reference to bovines. After a stern look from the official, Fortner stood in silence and looked a tad sheepish.
BEST DRIVE: That of Bianca Thomas, who tipped the pass and stole the ball on Auburn's end and then went coast to coast, completing the play with an around-the-back ball move to elude defender Whitney Boddie on the right and finishing with a layup.
LOUDEST CHEERLEADER: The one for Georgia who periodically barked in support of the Lady Bulldogs. The Georgia pep band would break out in song on occasion, including a rendition of "Let's Make the Right Call," when in disagreement with an official.
ODDEST ATTIRE: That of two people on the Vanderbilt bench who wore orange blouses. One was Rebecca Silinski, a sophomore forward, who has not played or practiced since being diagnosed in December with Lyme disease. The other was Caroline Williams, a former Commodore player and current assistant coach.
SCARIEST MOMENT: When LSU's Latear Eason went down under the basket, hit her head and then got stepped on in the neck area. Eason remained on the floor and was removed from the game on a stretcher with head and neck support.
All the fans and both the LSU and Mississippi State benches stood up and applauded when Eason was taken from the court. She was taken to a local hospital for X-rays. She sustained severe neck pain but did not suffer any loss of body movement.
SIGH OF RELIEF: Likely from tourney organizers when Tennessee won its quarterfinal game. Session One attendance was 3,386, and Session Two was 5,041. In both sessions the dominant color was Tennessee orange.
BEST QUIP: After giving his opening statement – and praising his players for how they regrouped after Latear Eason was injured – LSU Coach Van Chancellor said, "Any questions? I'm spent. Staying up 'til 11 o'clock is hard on an old man."