Comeback Commodores are SEC Tournament champs

NASHVILLE-- Vanderbilt rallied from an 18-point second half deficit to defeat No. 20 Georgia 62-56 Sunday in the championship game of the SEC Tournament. Freshman center Carla Thomas, who was named tournament MVP, led the Commodore attack with 22 points and 11 rebounds. It was the eighth straight win for the Commodores, who clinched an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

NASHVILLE-- Vanderbilt rallied from an 18-point second half deficit to defeat No. 20 Georgia 62-56 Sunday in the championship game of the SEC Tournament. Freshman center Carla Thomas, who was named tournament MVP, led the Commodore attack with 22 points and 11 rebounds.

The astonishing comeback resulted in the eighth straight win for resilient Vanderbilt (24-7), not to mention an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

The SEC Tournament title was Vanderbilt's fourth in school history, and its second in three years. To earn this one, the sixth-seeded Commodores had to do what only one team in history (Auburn in 1997) had done-- win four games in four days. Vandy had already done the improbable in knocking off Kentucky, No. 19 Auburn, and No. 15 LSU to reach the finals.

The two halves of the game were two totally different stories for Vanderbilt. After shooting 30.8% from the field in the first half, the Commodores shot 50% in the second half. Out-rebounded 23-17 in the first half, in the second, they out-rebounded Georgia 22-11. After scoring no points off turnovers in the first half, they scored 13 off turnovers in the second.

Vanderbilt scored the first basket of the game on a jumper by Jenni Benningfield to take an early 2-0 lead, but a 3-pointer from Sherill Baker shortly afterwards gave Georgia a lead that they wouldn't relinquish until late in the game.

After that first basket, the Commodores had trouble finding another one, as they missed their next six shots, allowing Georgia to build a 9-2 lead. Abi Ramsey finally broke the scoring drought, and a jumper and a couple of free throws from Thomas cut the lead to three points at 11-8 with 12:48 left in the half.

But the Commodores' shooting woes continued, and the Bulldogs began to pull slowly away, with the lead reaching double digits at 20-10 with 8:58 left in the half. The lead stayed around ten points for the next few minutes, and with 4:36 left, a basket by Benningfield cut the lead to single digits at 25-16. But in the remainder of the half, the Commodores only managed one field goal, which allowed the Dawgs to build a 16-point halftime lead at 34-18.

The first half stats reflected the Commodores' woes. One of the best 3-point shooting teams in the SEC, Vanderbilt shot 0-6 from 3-point range and only 30.8% overall from the field. They were out-rebounded by Georgia 23-17, and had 9 turnovers, while Georgia only had three. The Commodores were in a deep hole.

At halftime the team realized that it would have to make a change if it wanted a chance to win. One of the changes was to play defense more aggressively, with more pressing and trapping.

The plan worked. Georgia increased its lead to 18 points at 40-22 with 16:29 left, but then the Commodores made their run. A 3-pointer from Hager with 15:43 left cut the lead to 15 points and inspired the crowd to get back into the game.

After a media timeout, Davis grabbed the rebound of a miss by Thomas and put it back to cut the lead to 13. A Vandy trap led to a steal, resulting in a Hager score off the fast break. Earley grabbed a defensive board on the other end, then scored on a layup. Then a basket by Hager cut the lead to just 40-33 with 13 minutes left.

The predominantly black and gold crowd began to sense that the Commodores were back in the game. Baker scored to push the Georgia lead back to nine points, but a fastbreak layup by Davis and a putback by Earley on Thomas's miss cut the lead to 42-37 with 10:06 left.

A couple of free throws by Alexis Kendrick put the lead back to seven, but after the Commodores snared two offensive rebounds with Earley putting back the second one to get the lead back to five, Georgia Head Coach Andy Landers called time out.

But the time out didn't stop the Commodore march. Hager missed a shot, but grabbed her own rebound and scored, then Thomas did the same thing to cut the Georgia lead to just one point at 47-46 with 6:18 left, and a couple of minutes later, a layup by Thomas gave the Commodores a 50-49 lead, their first lead since the first minute of the game.

Georgia answered with a layup by Christi Thomas, but an Earley layup gave Vandy a 52-51 lead, one that the Commodores would not relinquish. A 3-pointer from Kendrick tied the game at 54-54, but Thomas scored, then Davis was fouled driving to the basket and sank both free throws to give the Commodores a 58-54 lead with 0:58 left.

Georgia sent Thomas to the free throw line, where she sank both shots to increase the lead to 60-54 with 0:34 seconds left. Kendrick missed a 3-point attempt on the other end, and Georgia fouled Thomas on the rebound. The freshman missed the first the first of two shots and lost the opportunity for the second when Vanderbilt committed a lane violation.

Georgia scored on the following possession to cut the lead back to four points at 60-56 with 0:11 left, but that would as close as they'd get. There was nothing to do but foul, and Abi Ramsey sank both free throws to seal the 62-56 victory.

Overall for the game, the Commodores shot 41.4% from the field compared to 35% for the Lady Bulldogs. Neither team shot well from 3-point range, with Vanderbilt shooting 11.1% (1/9) while Georgia shot 21.1% (4/19). Vanderbilt out-rebounded Georgia 39-34, while Georgia had fewer turnovers with 14, compared to 17 for Vanderbilt.

NCAA Tournament seedings and pairings will be announced next Sunday, March 14.

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