In other quarterfinal action Friday, Tennessee defeated Mississippi State 67-57; LSU defeated Ole Miss, 79-66; and Georgia edged Florida, 76-72. Saturday's Tennessee-Georgia game tips off at 6 p.m. CT, and LSU-Vanderbilt follows some 20 minutes afterwards. Tickets for the Saturday session are still available.
In beating Auburn for the third time this season, Vanderbilt shot a season high 60.4% from the field, including 8-of-13 from 3-point range. The Commodores will make their fifth consecutive appearance in the tournament semifinals Saturday.
The biggest lead of the game by either team took place in the first two minutes, when freshman point guard Dee Davis and Benningfield hit consecutive 3-pointers to give the Commodores an early 6-0 lead. But the safety cushion didn't last, as the Tigers came back to tie the game at 9-9 at the 15:37 mark.
For the rest of the half, neither team led by more than four points. The first half saw eight lead changes and five ties, the last of which came when Auburn tied the game at 36-36 just before halftime.
The second half was even tighter than the first half, with twelve lead changes and nine ties. Neither team led by more than four points, and that margin lasted less than a minute.
With 2:21 left in the game and leading 67-66, Auburn called a 30-second timeout. Nicole Louden missed a shot for Auburn; Abi Ramsey grabbed the rebound, and Benningfield sank a jumper on the other end of the court to give Vandy the lead back.
Auburn answered with a 3-pointer, but Hager scored to tie the game again at 70-70 with 0:59 seconds left. A foul by Hager sent Mandisa Stevenson to the line, where she sank one of two. Le'Coe Willingham fouled Benningfield on the rebound.
That foul put the Commodores into the bonus, so they walked to the other end of the court, where Benningfield stepped to the line for one-and-one. She sank both shots to give Vanderbilt a 72-71 lead.
On Auburn's possession, Katie Antony fouled Natasha Brackett on a putback shot that put Auburn ahead 73-72. But Brackett missed the free throw and Ramsey pulled down the rebound.
Hager's jumper put Vanderbilt ahead 74-73 with 0:25 seconds left, but Carla Thomas soon picked up her fifth foul, sending Brackett to the line for two free throws. She missed the first, but made the second to tie the game at 74-74 with 0:13 left.
Brackett fouled Ramsey coming off a screen with five seconds remaining, and Ramsey went to the free throw line for a one-and-one. Auburn called timeout to freeze her, but she sank both shows to put the Commodores up 76-74. After a Vanderbilt timeout, Louden missed a two-point attempt at the buzzer.
Auburn shot 42.6% from the field, including five 3-pointers on 12 attempts. Auburn shot 73.9% from the free throw line (17/23) compared to 66.7% (10/15) for Vanderbilt. Rebounds were equal with 30 each, but Auburn took better care of the ball, with only 14 turnovers compared to 21 for the Commodores.
POST GAME COMMENTS
Coach Balcomb: I was just telling the players I just really was proud of effort tonight. I was proud of our confidence, and just our ability to keep playing through a lot of turnovers in the first half, a lot of mistakes, but we just kept playing. We stayed positive. I thought our attitude, our enthusiasm, and our effort was tremendous.
The Press: You beat Auburn three times this season. What do you have to do bo beat LSU a second time?
Coach Balcomb: I can honestly tell you that I'm just getting over this game. I'm still thinking about Auburn, I think. (Pause.) I'll stay up all night and figure it out. Again, I think we have confidence because we have beaten them on the road, and tonight I just want to say the crowd was great. We were home. I could really hear them, and I think it really helped our players maintain that effort all game even when they got tired, and I think tomorrow that's going to be really important, that they're playing a third game in a row.
The Press: Jenni, you hit a 3-pointer last night and another one tonight, the first ones you've hit since you've injured your foot in January. Do you feel like you're on the way back as far as that aspect of your game?
Jenni: I tell you, that was a load off my shoulders. I've been working on it, just trying to get my legs underneath my shot. When it went in, I just got more confidence, and ever since then, I've been trying to gain confidence, not just with my 3, but with my outside shot in general. It feels pretty good. I can't complain.
The Press: Jenni, I think you all hit ten of your first 11 shots, but you weren't able to put much distance between you and Auburn as you would have liked probably because of turnovers. What was going on offensively then?
Jenni: I think we let them take us out of our offense. I think we did a lot of standing around, just trying to figure out what kind of defense they were doing. They were following our cutters on our zone offense, so we just had to read the defense, and once we did that, we were able to. I know if at first when I got the ball in the high post, if I didn't have the open shot, I was able to get it to Abi and Hillary for the 3-point shot. We were just trying to keep the defense honest. It just took us a little bit longer than we like to read the defense and get back into the flow of the game.
The Press: Ccoach, can you talk a little bit about Hillary Hager's performance tonight? She played all 40 minutes and was 4 of 8 from the 3-point line.
Coach Balcomb: Hillary is so focused right now. She just gives me confidence, she gives her teammates confidence the way she's carrying herself. She's focused, she's confident, she's on a mission, and we want to go on that mission with her. I don't have to take her out because she is so prepared, she's in incredible shape, and I don't even think she breathed that heavy tonight. Yet, she played at the same speed all the time, which is 100% go, go, go, go. She's going to have to get herself ready tomorrow, but it's really impressive the way she just keeps going and plays for 40 minutes and has that endurance.
The Press: Katie played more tonight than she had most of the regular season. Are you happy with the composure she showed, and is part of that that Dee is still under the weather?
Coach Balcomb: Yes, and I felt that Erica did a great job. Erica played a lot of minutes. She calmed us down. She made very, very solid decisions, and only had one turnover the whole time. I think Erica's play was very important and very good. Erica started to tire, because Erica has not played in a game that long all season. And Erica plays, like Hillary does, 100% every minute when she's out there. I took her out for defensive reasons because they were really starting to take her off the dribble, and she was just exhausted, and she was having trouble guarding.
So then I went with Katie. It gave us more size to see into the high post and the low post, and I thought we needed that because they were getting some deflections, and we needed to go into the gut of the defense. They did a great job taking away our 3's. They made some great adjustments. They had a week to prepare, and it was very obvious. And like Jenni was saying, they really did a good job. They made us beat them in different ways this time and were very prepared for areas we had scored on them in the past. And it took some time to adjust to that, like we only had those eight turnovers in the second half. We really cut down, and I think we just had to adjust.
The Press: Abi, on that last foul, tell me exactly from your perspective what happened.
Abi: Well, Jenni set a screen for me to do a fade, and she just kind of grabbed and held on to my jersey. It was a really good call, as I told the officials, (Laughter.)
The Press: As tight as this game was, did you think it was going to come down to a last second shot?
Abi: You hope that it won't, but we knew playing with them that it was just going to be a war until the end.
Jenni: Coming out of the huddle, I looked at them - they were shooting free throws - and I said, "We're going to get this rebound, and the next shot - we're going to make that shot," And we came down and, sure enough, Hillary made that shot. We were so confident. I looked at everybody's face, and everybody had such a confident look. It was incredible, because I knew we were going to win that game. We wanted it more. By looking at everybody, everybody was ready, everybody wanted the ball. No one was afraid to get the ball. It was an awesome feeling at that time because I knew we were going to win.
The Press: Coach, if you can shoot 60% from the floor, won't you take your chances every night out?
Coach Balcomb: The funny thing was, the TV person asked me at halftime, you're shooting almost 70% from the floor at halftime, and you're not leading, what's the problem? And I was like, wow, I knew we were shooting good. I just think you're going to be in every game if you're going to shoot that good. You're not going to shoot that good every night, but I think what's really important right now is that our scoring is so balanced. We have a very good balance between our inside game and our outside game. We had five players in double figures. Ashley Earley came off the bench, our sixth player, and she gave us ten. That's what we need. We need balanced scoring. You take one thing away, and we're going to beat you somewhere else. And I think that's why we're shooting the ball so well, and also our play is very unselfish right now. Our players are making the extra pass, and I thought we were very patient at times and really looked for that open player and were willing to give it up. Even if we're open, we're going to pass it to someone else who's a little more open, and that's how you shoot the ball so well.