Things were starting to look bleak for the Commodores, who trailed 41-31 with thirteen minutes left. But Melanie Balcomb's team composed itself to score 16 of the game's next 17 points to turn the tables on the Tigers.
"I'm really proud of how our players never stopped working hard, and their effort as a team got better and better as they started to share the ball better as the game went on," said Balcomb. "They also got more confident as the game went on."
Ramsey wasted no time getting started, as she scored her first 3-pointer of the afternoon less than a minute into the game, then sank three more in the next five minutes. Along with a couple of free throws, her barrage from the outside accounted for all of Vanderbilt's first 14 points.
But Joe Ciampi's Tigers were able to keep pace. A couple of 3-pointers from Natasha Brackett helped keep the Tigers close, and six minutes into the game, the score was Ramsey 14, Auburn 13.
Then offensively, the Tigers began to go inside to Le'Coe Willingham and began keying on Ramsey defensively. Over the next six minutes, a 3-pointer from Hillary Hager was the lone Vanderbilt basket, as Auburn went on an 18-3 run to take a 31-17 lead.
At that point Balcomb inserted sophomore point guard Erica Grimaldi, as well as senior center Jenni Benningfield, still playing with a stress fracture in her right foot. With better-balanced scoring, the Commodores began to inch their way back into the game, with points coming from Benningfield, Ashley Earley, Nicole Jules and Jenn Hall. A 3-pointer from Hager with 0:05 left in the half cut Auburn's lead to 35-29 at halftime.
Conventional basketball wisdom says that the first few minutes of the second half is a key juncture in the game, and the momentum from a strong ending to the first half will carry over to the second half.
But conventional wisdom isn't always right. Coming out of the gate in the second half, Vanderbilt managed only two points in the first seven minutes, allowing Auburn to stretch the lead back to double digits at 41-31 with thirteen minutes remaining.
Then suddenly the Commodores came to life. Hager sank a jumper, and Katie Antony was fouled on a drive and sank both free throws. Nicole Louden sank a free throw for the Tigers, but Hager answered with a 3-pointer. After freshman point guard Dee Davis scored on a fast break following a Ramsey steal to cut it to 42-40, Auburn coach Joe Ciampi called time out.
But the timeout didn't stop the Vanderbilt run. Following a steal by Hager, Carla Thomas's lay-up tied the score at 42-all, and Earley sank a free throw to give the Commodores their first lead since early in the first half. Earley missed the second free throw, but Hager scored on a putback. A foul by Auburn center Mandisa Stevenson sent Thomas to the line, where she sank both free throws to give Vanderbilt a 47-42 lead with 7:53 left.
The Commodores would hold on to that lead for the remainder of the game, but nothing would come easy. A free throw by Marita Payne brought the Tigers back to within one at 54-53 with 3:44 left, then the Commodores committed a shot clock violation to give the ball back to Auburn.
But on the other end, Benningfield drew a charge, then Hager capitalized by sinking another 3-pointer. Thomas and Benningfield each grabbed critical rebounds, and a Benningfield basket gave Vanderbilt a 59-53 lead. A 3-pointer by Bracket cut the lead back to three points with 1:34 left, but that was as close as Auburn would get.
With the fouls mounting for both teams and Auburn beginning to intentionally foul to send the Commodores to the line, the final minute of the game featured 18 free throw attempts, 12 for Vanderbilt and six for Auburn. By the end of the game, five players had fouled out-- Stevenson, Louden, and Brackett for Auburn, and Thomas and Earley for Vanderbilt.
The Vanderbilt free-throw shooting down the stretch wasn't perfect, as the Commodores missed four of their 12 attempts-- but that turned out to be enough, as Vanderbilt held on for the 67-63 victory.
For the game Vanderbilt shot 38.9% from the field compared to 42.2% for Auburn. But it was really a tale of two halves, with the Tigers shooting 52.2% in the first half while holding Vanderbilt to 33.3%. In the second half, however, the Commodores warmed up to 45.8%, while the Tigers could manage only 31.8%.
Auburn came into the game out-rebounding opponents by an average of 12 rebounds per game, but in this game, rebounds were even at 36 each. Vanderbilt turned the ball over only 14 times, compared to 18 for Auburn.
Vanderbilt travels next to Knoxville to take on the Tennessee Lady Vols Thursday in a 6 p.m. CT game that will be televised by Fox Sports Net South.
Vanderbilt Head Coach Melanie Balcomb: I think the biggest thing is seeing our improvement level. We've come a long way since being down at Miami. I'm really proud of how our players never stopped working hard, and their effort as a team got better and better as they started to share the ball better as the game went on and got more confident as the game went on.
The Press: How did you change things up in the second half? For a long time the offense was stagnant in the halfcourt; what happened to turn things around?
Coach Balcomb: I did a lot of yelling that I don't usually do. l'll be honest with you. I was really on them to pass the ball, and to want the ball, and to call for the ball. Abi Ramsey came out very confident and scored 11 points, and everybody else just stood there and watched her and really didn't look like they wanted the ball, didn't look like they were confident at all. And in the second half, I made them execute the offenses more. That's what I got on them about at halftime, to share the basketball and get balanced scoring, and that's what we did. Our post players didn't post in the first half. We couldn't get it inside. If we got it inside, it was an easy inside out, because they were doubling and tripling. But I couldn't get them to post and want the ball. So a lot of it was confidence level and that improved in the second half for some reason.
The Press: Did you put an emphasis on rebounding in the second half?
Coach Balcomb: We put an emphasis on that for a week. We just did a better job in the second half. Our biggest emphasis was to keep pushing the ball and running and wearing them out because we knew they were lacking depth in the post, and really, by pushing and subbing a lot, we got them tired, and then they didn't do as good a job on the boards. I hate to give us credit more on the offense for that, but really, I think they were more tired than they were and they didn't crash as hard as they did. But that was our key to the game -- check out, check out, check out from Day 1.
The Press: So you were trying to wear them out, even on the offensive end?
Coach Balcomb: Yeah, just pushing it off misses and makes the whole time and keep pushing the basketball because we knew things would open up as they tired, and they did. When we got the ball a ton more in the second half inside, they didn't get down there and double because they were tired. And they stood behind more in the post because they were tired, and that's because we kept trying to push the ball. Even if we 't scoring, we wanted to keep pushing it.
The Press: You got some minutes in some relatively unexpected places today, 14 for Erica Grimaldi, 8 for Nicole Jules, folks who hadn't stepped in and played a lot this year. Can you talk about what that meant?
Coach Balcomb: It meant a ton. I think they were ready to play. I think it's a tough call when you ask people to play that haven't been playing to come in in a big game. I thought Erica has shown in the last two weeks some great composure and leadership in practice, and she's in the gym all the time, and I felt like t it was time to give her a chance. We were really inconsistent with all our guards, and I thought we needed to give her a shot, and I thought she did a great job, I think really calmed us down.
And then Nicole has been doing a great job defensively, and in the second half Ashley Earley got in foul trouble, Carla got in foul trouble, and I felt like Nicole would post, she also works hard to post and get position in the post which opens other things up, and she also does a good job defensively for us, so I put her in for defense.
The Press: It looked like Carla did a decent job defensively against Willingham, kind of frustrated her.
Coach Balcomb: In the first half, to be honest with you, we did a poor job inside on the block, and Le'Coe was killing us on the block, and we had to get out of our matchup because we were fronting too much from the top, and we weren't moving around. When the ball was moving, our posts weren't moving, so we had to go to man-to-man, and that actually helped us. We did a much better job in man pressuring the guards and then getting around in the post than we did in matchup. Then we went back to some matchup later on and were moving better.
The Press: This is obviously still a young team and you said (inaudible), do you think that might have had something to do with the national television appearance?
Coach Balcomb: I'm sure they're thinking about a lot of things that I'm not thinking about, that I'm used to. They're young, and they're going to be concerned about things I wouldn't even think about, and one of them was TV for the first time, and knowing that. I think they real excited but needed to just slow down on offense and were just going really fast again.
The Press: With Jenni and Dee in a limited role and with the foul trouble that you had, were you telling Hillary to shoot more often?
Coach Balcomb: Oh yeah. That's exactly who I told to shoot because they started keying on Abi, so I told Hillary she must shoot the ball. I'll be honest with you, we went out there and ran a play for her, and she didn't shoot it, and the shot clock went down, and I ripped her face off, which I don't ever have to do with Hillary because she works so doggone hard. I ripped her face off to shoot it, she came down the next time and hit the 3 that I thought was the most important shot in the game. I mean, in the timeout I had asked her to shoot the ball, and that's who we were talking about going to, and she didn't, and once I ripped her, she just stepped up and buried it, so I was really proud of how she came back with the confidence that she didn't have the first time.
The Press: You talked coming about Auburn coming in as a zone team and looking for the perimeter game to step up, you hit the 8 three's, is that about what you wanted?
Coach Balcomb: Well, I think it kind of worked against us at first because Abi was lighting it up and then everybody else thought they were just going to jump in on the party. That's what happens sometimes, and they weren't jumping in. We were relying on the 3 too much, and we needed to get the ball inside, and we needed to go high low, and our post players were not posting. They were just saying, okay, we're just going to shoot 3's, and I think that made them not be so aggressive, and we needed to go inside out, and we didn't do that enough. In the second half, you saw us do that more. Hillary hit a big 3 also when we went inside, and I think it was Ashley Earley that kicked out, and that's what we try to do more of, is get the ball inside. I mean, we wanted to take it to their post players, they don't have any depth in the post, and we weren't getting any fouls on them in the post, not even making them play post defense, which is why I'm sure they started in the matchup because they had to play those posts so many minutes.
Coach Balcomb left, and junior guard Abi Ramsey and senior guard Hillary Hager entered the room for questions.
The Press: Abi, can you talk about the start of the game, shooting the lights out?
Abi: Well, it's kind of funny because I couldn't hit anything in shootaround today, so I had come out early before the game and shot around for about 20 minutes and just kind of shot until I got my confidence back, and when the game started, I guess I kind of got unconscious for a minute, I was shooting it every time I touched it. I think I had the first 14 points, which isn't good, because we should have been getting points from other places, but I was feeling it tonight.
The Press: Abi, in your view, why weren't you getting points other places? What was happening?
Abi: I don't know, maybe we just got complacent with me-- I mean, they were really leaving me open a lot in the very beginning, so we were just kind of watching me shoot for a while. I really don't know.
The Press: Hillary, Coach just said that they set up a play and you didn't take a shot, then she ripped into you and you hit a big three, could you talk about that from your point of view?
Hillary: Yeah, well, they had been guarding Abi pretty hard for obvious reasons in the second half, and there was a play we ran where I had the shot, I should have taken it but I didn't and she was there, but I could have the shot and then, like you said, Coach ripped me pretty good and the next play we came down and ran the same play, and I shot it and that was a 3 that went in. Yeah, I needed that from Coach.
The Press: Abi, can you talk about your defense?
Abi: Well, last year when Coach Balcomb got here, she said, "I know you can shoot, but if you can't play D, I'm not going to play you." So it's probably become the most important part of my game now, and it's easier for me to focus on that going into games instead of my 3's so I won't be as conscious if I miss a shot. So, it's gotten better.
The Press: Abi, can you talk about the difference between the two halves?
Abi: The second half I think there was a timeout where Coach Balcomb ripped us pretty good and said, I don't know what else to tell you guys to do, because we had run several different kinds of defenses, and I think we just kind of took it upon ourselves to find the grit to tough it out and get in their pants. Our defense stepped up and we got several steals, and they were rushing their shots. We got offensive rebounds, that was a big one, they were beating us on offensive rebounds, and ended up getting more than that in the second half.
The Press: Do you guys think about the fact that it's a nationally televised game? Does that enter into your mindset at all?
Hillary: I think for the young players, it does. It's the first time they've ever played on national television. And there's definitely more, I don't want to say "more excitement", but it's definitely thought about. But by the time gametime rolls around, it's in the back of your mind, and you're focusing on the game, on the other team, and what you need to do to win.
The Press: Hillary, Coach was talking about how you were using your offense to wear down the Auburn team, since she knew that they were a little thin. But it was more like with the halfcourt offense you were running the shotclock down to nothing sometimes and not getting a shot at all. Was that really part of the philosophy, to wear them down by possessing the ball as long as you guys did in the second half?
Hillary: Well, on low post, we wanted to get to our last options in the second half in our motion offense, because in the first half we hadn't done that. We got to our first one or two options, and then we'd take a shot and it wasn't always the best shot, so we wanted to run our motion offense to the end options, and, yeah, and in doing that we would have the ball longer and wear them down because they didn't have much depth, tonight at least.