That experience nearly paid big dividends for Auburn on Friday night. "We knew we had to take that three point shot away because they shot the ball really well against us at Auburn," said Auburn Coach Nell Fortner after the game. "We really made an effort to make sure we were out on shooters."
After a 3-pointer by Merideth Marsh less than one minute into the game, the Tigers were successful in that strategy, allowing only two 3-pointers by Vanderbilt for the rest of the game.
Auburn was also successful in making life difficult for Tina Wirth, Vanderbilt's leading scorer. Coming into the game, the All-SEC First Team forward was averaging 13.6 points per game in SEC contests, so it wasn't surprising that containing her was a priority for the Tigers.
We were switching in our defense," said Fortner. "They run a lot of things, like she'll screen and pop out or screen and pop up, so we were switching those, and we ended up having somebody on her. She wasn't getting many looks."
"Auburn did a great job defensively," said Vanderbilt Head Coach Melanie Balcomb. "We were really out of sync on offense, turned the ball over a ton, and they really took us out of what we do."
But at the same time, Dores turned in an impressive defensive performance of their own, holding Auburn to 29% from the field and not allowing a single basket from 3-point range. In addition, Vanderbilt, led by junior guard Jen Risper's 15 rebounds, out-rebounded the Tigers 40-31.
"I think we did a great job rebounding, and rebounding was our number one key, rebounding the basketball and keeping them off the glass because that's what they're so good at," said Balcomb. "I think we knew each other really well playing so recently, and we both did a great job preparing our teams and taking each other's strengths away."
The result was a record-breaking performance for the game. The 93 total points scored broke the old record of 94 total points, a record set by the same two teams in the same building when Vanderbilt defeated Auburn 55-39 on their way to the 2002 tournament championship.
Although the game didn't feature offensive fireworks, there was plenty of drama in the end. After holding an 8-point halftime lead at 23-15, Vanderbilt scored the first two baskets of the second half to take a 12-point lead at 27-15.
But if Vanderbilt fans were hoping that the Dores would finally find an offensive flow, build the lead and cruise to an easy victory, they were sorely disappointed.
The double-digit lead didn't last for long. An old-fashioned 3-point play by DeWanna Bonner cut the Vanderbilt lead to 4 points at 30-26 with 14:13 left in the game. For the next ten minutes, the Dores were able to hold off the Tigers, keeping their lead around five points.
Then with four minutes left in the game two free throws by Bonner cut the lead to two points at 41-39. Neither team scored for two minutes until Bonner hit two more free throws to tie the game at 41-41.
So after 38 minutes of play, the teams were back to square one, and in that moment, the possibility that Auburn would be the first team in 2008 tournament to pull an upset began to look very real.
But then, just when Vanderbilt needed a lift, Wirth scored her first points of the game on a jumper from the elbow to put the Dores back on top.
Besides the tangible results on the scoreboard, Wirth's basket had a salutary effect on the team.
"When she made that shot we all breathed easy," said Balcomb. "We became tense as a team because she wasn't hitting her shots."
After that, it came down to the free throw line. First the Tigers had their chance, with Sherrel Hobbs hitting one of two shots to make it a one-point game.
Then, on the other end of the court, Amber Norton, who stepped in after Liz Sherwood fouled out, was fouled while going for an offensive rebound and sank both free throws to put Vanderbilt up by three at 45-42.
Next, it was Jessica Mooney's turn, and she also made both of her shots. A basket by Bonner with 2 seconds left cut the lead back to 3 points. Then Marsh was fouled, and she stepped to the line, sinking both of her free throws. In all, after Wirth's basket put Vanderbilt ahead for good, the Dores were a perfect 6-6 from the free throw line.
"Free throw shooting is important in every game," said Mooney. "Coach emphasizes it in practice. We work on it every practice. We have to hit 80 percent or hit five in a row, some kind of thing, before we can go home."
However, on Friday night, Vanderbilt's perfect performance from the line in the final minutes of the game meant that the Tigers were the team going home.
With their loss in the tournament, Auburn now awaits Selection Monday, when they'll learn whether they'll receive an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.
On the other hand, Vanderbilt is considered to be a virtual lock for the NCAA tournament, so Saturday's semifinal against the Tennessee Lady Vols offers the Dores an opportunity for a signature win to improve their seeding in the NCAA tournament.
Saturday's session begins at 5:30 p.m. In the first game, the #1-seeded LSU Lady Tigers face the #4-seeded Kentucky Wildcats. Then in the nightcap, Vanderbilt will play Tennessee at 8 p.m. The game will be telecast on FSN.
Photos copyright 2008 by Whitney D for VandyMania.com