Women's Hoops: Commodores drop SEC opener, 78-75

The Vanderbilt Commodores made their 2003 SEC debut Sunday afternoon in Starkville, but the Mississippi State Lady Bulldogs spoiled the party with a hard-fought 78-75 victory over the visiting Commodores.

Coming into the game, on paper the two teams looked to be equally matched. Not only were they sharing the #14 spot in the national rankings, each team featured a multi-year All-American senior and a marquee guard.

As the game progressed, it quickly became apparent that the teams indeed were a close match for each other. By the time the game ended, there had been 18 ties and 13 lead changes. Neither team ever led by more than 6 points, and neither team could put together more than a 6-point run.

In the first few minutes of the game, the Commodores looked as if they might be able to put the game away early as they scored in a variety of ways. Ashley McElhiney sank the first basket of the game on a jumper at the shot clock buzzer, Jenni Benningfield scored on a fast break, Abi Ramsey scored on a backdoor cut, Benningfield hit a 3-pointer, and Chantelle Anderson sank a couple of free throws to help build a 11-6 lead at the first media timeout.

But then the Lady Bulldogs seized the momentum, coming out of the timeout in a full court press. With a couple of Commodore turnnovers, the home crowd suddenly alive. To make matters worse, both Benningfield and Anderson picked up two fouls. Despite the adversity, the Commodores kept their composure and countered every time that the Lady Bulldogs threatened to go on a big run.

But it wasn't enough to shut the door completely. With Anderson on the bench, State tied the game at 16-16 halfway through the first half. The Commodores briefly built a 6-point lead on back-to-back 3-pointers by McElhiney and Benningfield with seven minutes left. But, sure enough, within a couple of minutes a 3-pointer by freshman guard Doceide Warren and an old-fashioned 3-point play by Tan White tied the game yet again.

And so it went. When the first half ended, there was no more separation between the teams than at tip-off as they headed to the locker room in a 40-40 tie.

And the second half continued in the same vein. A score by LaToya to open the half was answered by a basket from Anderson. Another layup from Thomas was answered on the other end by Benningfield. The Commodores scraped out a 5-point lead briefly with about eleven minutes left in the game, but couldn't hang onto it, as Tan White hit a 3-pointer to cut the lead back to 2 points. Then, to make matters worse, Anderson and Rebecca Kates were whistled for a double foul, sending Anderson to the bench with her fourth foul of the game with Vanderbilt leading 57-55 at the 10:23 mark.

But even with their All-American on the bench, the Commodores maintained their composure, and when Anderson returned to the game with six minutes left, she quickly scored tying the game at 64-64. Anderson's return to the game was short-lived, however, as she was tagged with her fifth foul less than two minutes later with the Lady Bulldogs leading 68-66.

The Commodores still refused to fold, however, Abi Ramsey's second 3-pointer of the game gave Vandy a 1-point lead at 69-68 with 3:42 left, and Hillary Hager's first 3-pointer put Vandy on top 72-70 with 3:23 remaining. A couple of controversial out-of-bounds calls went against the Commodores in the final couple of minutes. The first was initially called in Vanderbilt's favor, then reversed. And then with Vanderbilt trailing by only 1 point at 76-75 with 13 seconds left, thanks to another 3-pointer from Hager, a missed Miss State shot that caroomed out of bounds was ruled off the Commodores to give the Lady Bulldogs the ball.

At that point, Vandy had no choice but to foul quickly, which sent LaToya Thomas to the line with 12 seconds left. After she made both free throws, giving the Lady Bulldogs a 3-point lead at 78-75, Vanderbilt called a 30-second time out to set up a final play. The Commodores got the shot they wanted, but unfortunately for Vandy, it didn't fall. State got the rebound, and the final buzzer sounded with the score standing at 78-75 in favor of Mississippi State.

Vanderbilt was led in scoring by Jenni Benningfield with 20 points, followed by Ashley McElhiney with 17, and Chantelle Anderson with 12. Benningfield's team high 15 rebounds marked her sixth double double of the season. No other Commodore had more than three boards. McElhiney also notched her sixth double double with 10 assists to go along with her 17 points.

LaToya Thomas led all scorers with 28 points for the Lady Bulldogs. Tan White added 19, and freshman guard Doceide Warren had 13. White was leading rebounder for State with 10, followed by Thomas with 8.

For the game, Vanderbilt shot 46.9% from the field (42.9% from behind the arc) and were 6 of 8 (75%) from the line. The Lady Bulldogs sot 42.9% from the field (26.3% from behind the arc) and were 13 of 15 (86.7%) from the line. The Lady Bulldogs out-rebounded the Commodores 41-31, including 19 offensive rebounds. State also had fewer turnovers with 13 compared to 18 for the Commodores.

With the loss, Vanderbilt falls to 10-4 (0-1 SEC), while Mississippi State improves to 12-3 (1-1 SEC). Next the Commodores return home to face South Carolina on Thursday night in Memorial Gym, while the Lady Bulldogs travel to Ole Miss next Sunday.

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VandyMania photos of Chantelle Anderson at the line, Ashley Earley and LaToya Thomas, Ashley McElhiney bringing the ball upcourt, Chantelle Anderson on the bench, and Head Coach Melanie Balcomb with ref Teresa Cahlem, by Micah Miller.

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