Hilltoppers top Vanderbilt women, 85-77

Ashley Earley's fourth double double of the season wasn't enough to keep the Vanderbilt Commodores from losing their first game of the season, as they fell to the Western Kentucky Lady Hilltoppers 85-77 Thursday before a raucous crowd in Biddle Arena.

The senior forward led the team with 19 points and 15 rebounds, while ophomore point guard Dee Davis earned her second consecutive double double with 12 points and 10 assists. Sophomore center Carla Thomas contributed 16 points.

In the first two minutes of the game, Thomas picked up two quick fouls, which proved to be a harbinger of things to come, although that part of the story wouldn't fully unfold until later in the game.

Vanderbilt led most of the first half. Western took the lead briefly with 12 minutes left in the half at 14-13, but a couple of baskets from Earley put the Commodores back in front.

Then Vanderbilt began to gradually stretch out the lead, which reached 12 points at 40-28 on a 3-pointer by senior guard Abi Ramsey with 3:32 left in the half. But the Lady Toppers were able to whittle it back to 10 points, then a layup by Crystal Kelly at the buzzer cut the Vanderbilt lead to 8 points at 44-36 going into the locker room.

Coming out of the locker room, Earley scored for Vanderbilt, but then Western seized the momentum. Several quick baskets cut the lead to 48-45, prompting the partisan home crowd to raise the decibel level and Vanderbilt Head Coach Melanie Balcomb to call a time out.

Vanderbilt held off the on-coming rush for briefly, but a layup by Tiff Porter-Talbert gave Western the lead at 51-50 with 16:26 remaining. Vanderbilt regained the lead on a basket by Thomas, and 3-pointers from Davis and Ramsey gave Vandy a 6-point lead at 60-54 with 13:20 left.

The Commodores continued to hold on to a slim lead, but foul trouble began to mount. With 9:33 left in the game, all five Commodore starters had three fouls. Shortly afterwards Davis picked up her fourth foul, and in less than a minute, both Thomas and Earley picked up their fourth fouls.

The hometown crowd began to smell blood. "FOUR FOUR FOUR FOUR" rang through the gym as the Vanderbilt players were whistled for their fourth fouls. With both Earley and Thomas saddled with four fouls, Balcomb was forced to play an unconventional four-guard lineup.

With 7:43 left in the game, a made free throw by sophomore guard Katie Antony gave Vandy a 4-point lead at 69-65. But then Western scored seven straight points while the crowd roared with delight and encouragement to take a 72-71 lead. A layup by Nicole Jules stopped by the run, but for the rest of the game, Vandy was forced to play catchup.

It turned out to be too high a hill to climb. The lead crept up to four points, then five, then six. Then a 3-pointer by Tifany Zaragoza with 2:43 delivered a crushing blow, giving the Lady Toppers a nine-point lead at 80-71.

Vandy was able to trim the lead to five points at 82-77 with 19 seconds left but could get no closer. Vandy fouled to get possession, and Western obligingly missed one of the free throws. But the second shot was good, and a subsequent steal by the Lady Toppers and a layup sealed the Commodores' doom at 85-77.

For the game, Vanderbilt shot 48.4% from the field compared to 60% to Western Kentucky. Rebounds were even at 32 or each team. The Lady Toppers held a slight edge in turnovers with 19 to Vanderbilt's 21. One of the biggest differences was in the foul calls. In the second half, The Commodoers were called 20 fouls compared on only nine for the Lady Toppers.

With the loss Vanderbilt falls to 6-1, while Western Kentucky improves to 3-3. Next action for the Commodores is in Memorial Gym on Sunday afternoon when they host the Saint Louis Billikens in a 2 p.m. game.

Vanderbilt's Cherish Stringfield, left, and Western Kentucky's Tifany Zaragosa battle for a loose ball (AP Photo/Joe Imel)

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