Women's Hoops: Vanderbilt survives Arkansas rally

Despite a furious second half comeback by the Lady Razorbacks, Vanderbilt defeated Arkansas 81-78 in the SEC tournament semi-finals Saturday night in the Gaylord Entertainment Center.

In the first half, it appeared that Vanderbilt would cruise to a fairly easy victory. By the 13:21 mark in the half, the Commodores had established a 17-6 lead on a 3-pointer by Jenni Benningfield. By the end of the half, the lead had reached 18 points at 44-26.

Early on, the second half looked like more of the same. During the first six minutes of the first half, Vanderbilt built their lead to 20, reaching their biggest lead of the night of 22 at 52-30 with 17:00 remaining.

But Arkansas refused to disappear. As the minutes ticked on, Vanderbilt's once-comfortable 22-point lead shrank to 20, then 10, and by the 9:51 mark, reached single digits. The Commodores managed to keep the margin around 10 until a 3-pointer and a pair of free throws from Shameka Christon cut the lead to 5 at 76-72 with 2:07 remaining. With 49 seconds left, Christon's second 3-pointer cut the lead to 3.

Then on Vanderbilt's possession, an errant pass from Chantelle Anderson was picked off by the Razorbacks, and Anderson subsequently picked up her 5th foul. Kiesha Beard hit both of her free throws to bring Arkansas within 1 point at 79-78 with 21 seconds remaining. India Lewis fouled Jenni Benningfield, who missed both of the free throws, and Christon grabbed the rebound. But on the opposite end of the court, she was called for a charge into Benningfield as she tried to spin to the basket. On Vandy's ensuing possess, Zuzi Klimesova was fouled and sank both of her free throws, giving Vanderbilt at 3-point lead at 81-78 with 6 seconds remaining. On their possession, Arkansas got the ball to India Lewis, their best 3-point shooter, but her long 3-point attempt was off the mark, and Vanderbilt had held on for the 81-78 victory.

Four Commodores scored in double figures, led by Zuzi Klimesova with 21 points. Ashley Earley scored 15 points off the bend, Chantelle Anderson had 14, and Jillian Danker had 12. Anderson was leading rebounder with 10, for her fifth double double of the season. Ashley McElhiney added 4 assists.

Arkansas was led in scoring by Shameka Christon with 40 points. Christon proved to be virtually unstoppable in the second half, hitting 10 of her 14 shots from the field, including 2 of 2 from 3-point range, as well as 6 of 7 from the free throw line. Dana Cherry was the only other Razorback in double figures with 11. Christon was also leading rebounder with 7, while Amy Wright dished out 10 assists with only 1 turnover.

For the game, Vanderbilt shot 50.9% from the field, compared to 43.9% for Arkansas. The Commodores also dominated the boards 38-20. Arkansas, however, forced 13 Vanderbilt turnovers which led to 20 points, while Vanderbilt forced only 4 Arkansas turnovers leadaing to only 3 points.

With the victory, Vanderbilt's record improves to 26-6, and the Commodores advance to meet the LSU Lady Tigers in the SEC tournament final on Sunday night. Arkansas (19-11) returns to Fayetteville to await a likely at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.


Vandymania: Jenni, can you tell me about the end of the game? Chantelle fouled out . . .

Jenni Benningfield: Yeah, Chantelle fouled out, and coach put me in. I came in, and I was like, "Okay, let's do this." But I got fouled and had those two free throws, and I didn't hit those and I knew that we gotta come back and play some defense. It's funny because Christon had an incredible game tonight. She was hitting everything. She's an incredible player -- she was outside, inside. And at halftime, all the coaches made a point to say, "When Christon's on the low block, she's going to spin -- she did it on me in the first half -- so get low and put your leg on the baseline so she won't get around you. And I figured when she posted up, I thought, well, if I'm going to have any type of defensive thing on her . . . and I thought she's going to do that, and I was there, and they called it. Then Zuzi came back and hit those two crucial free throws. Everybody stepped up, and we all came together when we needed it, and it's awesome, just awesome, to win that game and to go towards the championship tomorrow. That was the longest minute of my life.

The Press: This is for Coach Foster and the players. Is this as physical a game as you guys have played this year?

Vanderbilt Head Coach Jim Foster: It was pretty physical. There was a lot of bumping. A lot of bumping. I'd probably have to think about that. They're (nodding to players) the ones that get bumped. Maybe they'd have a better answer.

Vanderbilt Center Chantelle Anderson: One of them, yes.

The Press: Jim, this is two days in a row you haven't been able to maintain your offense through the second half. Similar problems to yesterday, or what was the difference?

Coach Foster: I don't know. I'd say it was more . . . .a 37 point half. It was more an unconscious player with one of the great performances you'll ever seen. I mean, she made every shot, and we had to keep coming back and maintain some semblance. I mean, she was just on fire. I thought when we executed we got pretty good shots. We did a pretty good job when Chantelle wasn't in the game of creating opportunities. I thought Ashley Earley picked us up and did a great job. It's nice to see a freshman come in and perform that way. So I'd be more inclined to think that that kid just had an unbelievable night. And at the end of the game, we had more points than they did. That's a nice feeling.

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The Press: Coach Foster, can you talk about picking up your 500th victory and getting into the title game tomorrow?

Coach Foster: I've said before, when you win that many games, it means you've had a lot of great players and you've been doing it a long time. And I qualify on both. I think this is the 5th time we've been in the title game in 11 years, and I think it's a nice feeling. It's a nice feeling to still be playing. It's a nice feeling to have the opportunity. We tell these kids all the time that life is a series of opportunities and how you handle. How you handle them determines your success. We're happy that we have the opportunity to play tomorrow.

The Press: Can you talk about Jenni Benningfield after missing two free throws going down to the other end taking a charge and also finding Zuzi on the inbounds play to take some more time off the clock.

Coach Foster: Yeah, we had actually talked about defending her on the low block at halftime and made an adjustument. Jenni stepped up and did exactly what she needed to do. I think it was a great defensive play. She had been turning baseline on the low block all night, and I'm glad Jenni remembered because she had started to live on the perimeter and hadn't been on the low block in quite a while. But I think she put that in her frame of reference, and when it was time to pull it out, she did the right thing.

The Press: Zuzi, you guys talked last year about a missed opportunity in the championship game. Is that something to remember now going into tomorrow?

Vanderbilt Forward Zuzi Klimesova: Definitely. I think there are certain losses in your career that you'll never forget. You'll never forget how it felt. It just comes back to you. I think that everybody on the team remembers since we didn't really lose anybody, and we're definitely going to have to come back tomorrow and do a better job.

The Press: Ashley, can you talk about the physicalness of the game, especially maybe referring back to the game in Fayetteville?

Vanderbilt Guard Ashley McElhiney: I would say this was one of the most physical games I've been in. They were with me everywhere I go. I think they do a great job, but I think I handled myself a lot better tonight. Over at their place I did a horrible job. I don't know where my head was. But tonight i think I did a better job, and I think that helped. It helps everyone when I'm here.

The Press: Was there a little woofing going on there with you and Wright and Lewis?

Ashley Mac: (laughter, as Ashley looks flustered)

Coach Foster: She's from Gleason. They woof with the best.

Ashley Mac: Well, at the first of the game, I wanted to let it be known that I wasn't going to play like I did at Arkansas, so if you want to say that, yeah.

The Press: What would you call it?

Ashley Mac: It's the first time that Chantelle had to tell me to get my head there. It's usually me telling Chantelle, but she got to me first.

Vanderbilt Center Chantelle Anderson: I should have listened to myself.

The Press: Along those lines, what did it feel like at the end of the game not to be able to have any influence except for watching and cheering?

Coach Foster: Thank you, David.

Chantelle: Well, I've been in that situation a few times in my career. I must say that this is why we call it a team game. I couldn't have played much worse than I played tonight, and the team had my back, and they played great. It was a frustrating night for myself, but good players have bad nights and come back the next day. I'm glad we're playing tomorrow.

Arkansas Head Coach Gary Blair: Before I get to the game, I want to thank the town of Nashville for putting on a first class act. It's well-run, well-attended, and sometimes it doesn't work out the way you want it to. A Vanderbilt-Tennessee matchup all the time because we almost had an LSU-Arkansas matchup and we probably would have had 2,000 people, but we would have had 2,000 people that really know basketball.

When you come to the SEC tournament, you expect upsets, but they're only upsets on paper because you've got 12 coaches in this league that can coach the game, and you've got 12 teams that can beat anybody in the nation on a given night. There's no bottom in this league. The town of Nashville has gone beyond the duty. It's first class -- the facilites, the hospitality, everything we've done except for the final score tonight.

But I think we didn't leave it in the dressing room at halftime. We didn't go in there and chew out anything. We looked in the mirror and saw the problem was us, and we looked in the dressing room next door and saw the reason we were behind was because Vanderbilt was playing tremendous basketball. They showed why they're a top 10 team and have a great chance to get to the final four this year. I thought our kids made one of the best comebacks ever. Probably half the people turned the game off at the half, but the Razorback fans didn't. They don't ever give up. They stay. But we gave the people a good ball game. I'm very proud of these young ladies.

Christon, that's the best individual performance I've ever been associated with, and I've been in it for a long long time. But as an individual performance, she was unstoppable. She was diving, going through, she was getting bumped on a lot of plays and making the basket, forgetting the fouls, because the foul wasn't coming. No one call beat us tonight. Getting down 22 points in the first half, that's the #1 problem when they were shooting lights out, running their stuff.

Ashley McElhiney tonight set the table. We had our way with Vanderbilt for three years, but sometimes you try doing it for the fourth time, and it's hard to do. Give McElhiney a lot of credit because she broke the press, but still, we stayed into what we wanted to do.

I thought we did an adequate job on Anderson, but she got loose just before the half. Other than that, we played as good on her as we have for the last three years. But give Vanderbilt a lot of credit for showing a lot of poise, Klimesova for hitting two free throws down the stretch.

But give my kid credit for hitting the two free throws. That kid is shooting 30% from the line. She went in and got the roll and stepped up like a red-shirt freshman. Let me tell you that there were a lot of fingers that were crossed and a lot of prayers answered, but she hit two shots and hopefully that'll give her confidence for next year.

The Press: Maybe two of the best games of basketball you could have gotten?

Coach Blair: Two great games. . . . . To heck with the NCAA tournament. You won't find two better games than what you saw tonight. Ya'll should go back out and have to pay to get in. I mean, that was good basketball. And as coaches, we fight for every call. I'm not as call as Jim is down on the other end. I'm a little animated, but you get down by 22 and you'd be a little animated, too. Jim's a very good coach. We've had great battles over the years, but two great basketball games. And if they want to know how many teams should get in the NCAA tournament, put 12 down. I think all 12 of them could line up and play everybody. But this was good. I hope Alabama and Georgia get in. I know we're in, and I know Vanderbilt's in, and I know a lot of other people are in, but I'd like to see us get 9 in because I think we deserve it.

The Press:Coach Blair, could you talk about the huge heart your team has and the leadership and guts of Amy Wright?

Coach Blair: I tell you what, I'd go to war with her any night. You saw two of the best point guards in the nation out there. And guess what -- they won't be on any All-American ballots because you sports writers and us coaches tend to vote for points. The point guards never get what is truly deserving for them. I've had the chance to coach a lot of good point guards at Louisiana Tech and Stephen F. Austin and here, and not too many of them get on all-conference because you look at those points on the right. Look at the heart. You said how much we heart we have? That's what a Razorback's all about. Heart. We play hard. We're a good, small team that has a chance to do great things on certain nights. In the second half, we did that. In the first half, we showed character as well as heart by coming back. When you have these kids like Shameka Christon and India Lewis and Amy Wright and Dana Cherry, those kids want it. That's what we're all about. And the nucleus of our team is coming back so you haven't seen the last of us. Anybody want to ask my kid who scored 40 points a question?

The Press: Shameka, did you have any idea you had 40, and what was going through your mind the second half?

Arkansas Forward Shameka Christon: No, at the time I wasn't thinking about how many points I had. I just know that our team wanted it so bad to advance past the semifinal round so we could play LSU tomorrow. But I wasn't really thinking about the points. I was just wanted to try to contribute and help my team. What was going through my head? Get me the ball down low. That was what was working for me, and to be honest, if you ask all my coaches the five spot is great for me. I hate it. I hate it, and yet it's what's working, so at the time, that was what I really wanted. I think my team did a great job of feeding me the ball.

The Press: Shameka, can you talk about the one play when Beard got fouled . . and also the last play, on the last play where you spun around and were called for the charge?

Shameka: Well, I mean, in a way I'm glad the foul got called because I didn't make the shot anyway but even if I would have made it, I'm glad it got called because that was Chantelle Anderson, and she was gone. And then you've got a chance to put Beard at the line, and people don't know this, but Keisha Beard is probably the first one in the gym and the last one to leave working on her free throws. She's trying to become a better ball player. It gave her a chance to go to the free throw line and knock down some free throws and help us and also boost her confidence.

Coach Blair: He wants to know about your last charge call.

Shameka: Well, with the charge, whenever I got it, I was in awe. I couldn't believe that they called a charge. I'm thinking I'm doing this move that Coach Chamber's been teaching for me for the longest, then I got a charge. But we still had time to try to get back in and win it, but I think I got a little down on myself.

The Press:Can you talk about what you said during in the timeout with 10 seconds left, just before Klimesova's second free throw?

Coach Blair: We figured they would set up in a 2-2-1. If it was a miss we were going coast-to-coast because we only needed two, and I've got Amy Wright that can take it coast-to-coast. If it was a 3, I had three 3-point shooters in. I had Harper to set the screen wherever it was. Harper tried to set the screen for Lewis. Lewis got about as good a look as she could. I couldn't take a chance and call timeout afterwards and give them a chance because I was out of them. But we were going to try to do it. She hit a shot further than that in Hawaii last year, a 55-footer and banked it in. I can't think of anyone else I'd rather have shooting the shot. It just didn't work out our way. GIve their kid credit for hitting two free throws.

Folks, thank ya'll again for having us here. You put a great show on. Now if I was ya'll, I would find a way to get those people that are going to leave to stay here and watch women's basketball. Quit pulling for a team tomorrow night. We need the people in those stands, so we need those Tennessee folks to come in and just watch a good basketball game tomorrow because right now LSU is playing awfully well, and Vanderbilt is one of the top four teams in the country. But thank you again for having us.

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