Women's Hoops: Vanderbilt 54 Liberty 44

In the month of March in college basketball, the operative phrase is "Survive and advance." And that's exactly what the Commodores did on Saturday afternoon as they defeated the Liberty Lady Flames 54-44 in the first round of the NCAA tournament in Norfolk, Virginia.

For Liberty, the game offered the chance to break through to their first NCAA tournament victory. For the seventh straight year, the Lady Flames advanced to the NCAAs with an automatic bid from the Big South Conference.

But because of the relative weakness of their conference, the Lady Flames have always received low seed, with the usual result of playing an SEC team on their home court in the first round. In 1998, for example, they entered the NCAA tournament as one of two undefeated teams in the country and were rewarded by a #16 seed playing on the homecourt of the ultimate national champions, the Tennessee Lady Vols.

This year held more promise. Not only did Liberty receive their highest seed ever at #13, but, more importantly, the NCAA's move to pre-determined sites in the early rounds of the tournament opened a new door. Instead of playing a first round game on an SEC home court, the Lady Flames met their SEC opponent on a neutral court in their home state. With a 26-3 record and 6'8 Katie Feenstra, one of the tallest players in the women's game, Liberty hoped that this would be the year their fortunes would change.

And for virtually the entire game, that hope stayed alive. From start to finish, the game was a defensive struggle. Both teams were ready, willing and able to take away what their opponent most wanted to do, and the inevitable result was an ugly game.

The most anticipated matchup of the afternoon was the battle in the post between Vanderbilt's 6'6 Chantelle Anderson and 6'8 Feenstra. However, both teams keyed on their opponents' centers and made it difficult to get the ball in to the post. Neither center scored in double figure and together they connected on only six baskets from the field, and it was left to the guards to carry the day.

Vanderbilt never trailed in the game, and the score was only tied once at 2-2. But the Commodores were never able to pull away.

In the first half, a 3-pointer by Abi Ramsey on a kickout from Anderson gave the Commodores a 10-point lead at 14-4 at the 13:44 mark of the first half. But Liberty countered with a 3-pointer from Daina Staugaitiene, and then, with the score at 16-7, a 6-minute Commodore scoring drought allowed the Lady Flames to cut the lead to 3 at 16-13 with eight minutes left in the half.

But as they've done all season, the Commodores closed the door there. Another 3-pointer by Abi Ramsey broke the drought and two 3-pointers by Ashley McElhiney and six points from Ashley Earley off the bench restored the Vanderbilt lead to 10 points at 31-21 at halftime.

For the first five minutes of the half, Vanderbilt maintained a double digit lead. But then, once again, the Lady Flames came back, as a 9-0 Liberty run once again cut the Vanderbilt lead to just 3 points at 35-32 halfway through the second half.

Then, once again, Commodores shut the door and went on an 10-0 run of their own, with 5 points each from Abi Ramsey and Hillary Hager, to take a 13-point lead at 49-36 with 3:26 left in the game.

But even then Liberty wasn't done. A basket by Kristal Tharp followed by an NBA-range 3-pointer from Staugaitiene cut the lead to 8 points. Then with 45 seconds left, a 3-pointer from Tharp cut the Vanderbilt lead to just 6 points at 50-44.

But from there on, Liberty had to foul to gain possession of the ball. The Commodores, who had struggled from the line all night, missed a couple of the resulting free throws, but it was still enough to hold off the Lady Flame, and Vanderbilt claimed the 54-44 victory.

Vanderbilt was led in scoring by Ashley McElhiney with 17 points, including three 3-pointers, followed by Abi Ramsey with 11 points, which also included three 3-pointers. No other Commodores scored in double figures. Chantelle Anderson was leading rebounder with 10, despite playing only 27 minutes due to foul trouble, and Jenni Benningfield added 8. McElhiney had 5 assists.

Daina Staugaitiene led the Lady Flames with 13 points, followeed by Jasinskaite and Tharp with 10 points each. Katie Feenstra had 12 rebounds, and Staugaitiene and Kristin Palmaimaite each had 5.

Vanderbilt's Ashley Earley, bottom, keeps her eyes on the ball after stumbling and losing control of it during a scramble against Liberty during the second half of their NCAA East Regional first-round game Saturday, March 22, 2003, at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va. Vanderbilt defeated Liberty 54-44. (AP Photo/Gary C. Knapp)

For the game, the Commodores shot 45.7% from the field (36.7% from 3-point range), while holding Liberty to 29.3% (29.4% from 3-point range). Liberty, among the leaders nationally in rebound margin, also held the edge in this game, out-rounding Vanderbilt 41-31. Vanderbilt had 18 turnovers, while Liberty had 16.

With the victory, the Commodores advance to the second round to meet the Boston College Eagles, who defeated the hosting Old Dominion Lady Monarchs 73-72 on a 3-pointer by Amber Jacobs with three seconds remaining. Gametime is 7:10 p.m. ET and will be telecast on ESPN/ESPN2. Check local TV listings for further details.

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Vanderbilt fans celebrate the victory at O'Sullivan's Wharf after the game. Photo by Whitney D.

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