For the freshmen as well as the returning veterans, the game turned out to be a trial by fire. The Commodore offense, which had sizzled during the exhibition games to the tune of 90-plus points in each game, struggled from beginning to end.
The five starters were the same as in the two exhibition games: freshman Dee Davis at the point, freshman Katie Antony at 2-guard, Hillary Hager at 3-guard, and junior Ashley Earley and senior Jenni Benningfield in the post.
But unlike the two exhibition games, the Commodores never managed to give themselves any breathing room the entire game. In the first half, the score was tied at 11-11, then at 13-13, then at 15-15, 17-17 and 19-19. Neither team ever led by more than five points, and at halftime South Alabama held a slim one-point lead at 27-26.
In the second half the Vanderbilt defense tightened up. In the first half, USA had shot 48% from the field, and in the second half, their field goal percentage dropped to 29%. However, offensively the Commodores still struggled, so the game remained tight.
Halfway through the second half, South Alabama took a 5-point lead at 40-35, but then Vanderbilt went on a 14-2 run to take a 7-point lead, their biggest of the night, at 49-42 with 6:32 remaining. But South Alabama clawed its way back, and tied the game at 55-55 on a 3-pointer by Sara Carter with 14 seconds left.
With 0.1 second on the clock and the score still tied 55-55, Benningfield was fouled and went to the free throw line for two shots. After she missed the first, South Alabama called timeout. When play resumed, she missed the second as well and the game went into overtime.
As they had throughout the game, the two teams sparred through the extra period. With 2:27 left, the score was knotted at 60-60; with 0:58 left, Benningfield's free throw tied it at 62-62. With 0.06 left, Hager sank a jumper from an inbounds play to put Vanderbilt up 64-62, and the Commodore defense held to seal the victory.
Four Commodores scored in double figures, led by Ashley Earley with 17 points, Hager with 15, Benningfield with 12, and Antony with 11. Earley was also leading rebounder with 18, followed by Benningfield with 8 and Hager with 6. Davis dished out 7 assists, while Antony had 4 steals.
For the game, Vanderbilt shot 39.7% (4 of 8 from 3-point range), while South Alabama shot 35.9% (9 of 31 from 3-point ranged). The Commodores pulled down 47 rebounds, compared to 39 for South Alabama. South Alabama had fewer turnovers, 21 to 19.
Vanderbilt advances to the championship round of the Banknorth Classic Saturday. The Commodores meet host Vermont, which defeated St. Francis (N.Y.) 72-51 in Friday's nightcap.
Vanderbilt Head Coach Melanie Balcomb: I think it was a tough game. I want to give South Alabama a lot of credit. I think they're a good team; I saw it on film. . They're very athletic, but also very well coached. I think he does a great job. Coming into this game, I think we were confident, but we're very young. I have four positives that I've come up with because we can't dwell on this. We've got 24 hours, and they're thinking they played bad.
The four positives are:
Number one. The freshmen's first game is over. They got very tight tonight, and you could see how tight they were. it's their first college game, and a close game.
Number two. Defense can win a game for us. I did not know that last year, and we knew at halftime that defense was going to win this game, not offense. So that's a huge positive.
Number three. Jenni Benningfield had an off-night, and we can still win with Jenni Benningfield having an off-night.
Number four. To win in a close game like that and hold our composure the way we did, winning in overtime, with a young team and a young point guard running the show. I think that's really important that we win close games.
I think there are four really good positives to this game, and we've got to put it behind us and move on.
Senior guard Hillary Hager: I think we were pretty tight on offense, collectively. And we didn't really score a lot... the past two games we scored 90-some points. And so we were pretty tight on offense and not getting it done. But we played defense down the stretch, so that just proves that we can play defense. We won that game on defense.
Freshman guard Katie Antony: Exactly what Hillary said -- we were a little tight. We had two freshmen out there. And I thought defensively we were working hard and trying to make some good stops towards the end. And we pulled it out. We won our first game. Bottom line-- we won. And the next game, we'll be prepared. We got the nerves out in this one.