Even the surprise appearance of senior point guard Ashley McElhiney, who had been out of action since January 19 with a high ankle sprain, didn't help the Commodores to find their offensive rhythm. And, as Vanderbilt missed shot after shot, the Tigers hit five of seven 3-pointers to help them build a 23-2 lead with 9:37 left in the first half.
Then finally the floundering Vanderbilt offense began to show signs of life, and the Commodores reeled off a 10-0 run of their own, capped by two 3-pointers from Abi Ramsey, to cut the lead to 11 points at 23-12 with five minutes left in the first half. Auburn stretched the lead back to 15 again a minute later. But as the half came to a close, Jenni Benningfield grabbed an offensive rebound, then got the bucket, the foul and free throw to cut the Auburn lead back to 10 points at halftime at 30-20.
Conventional basketball wisdom says that the first five minutes of the half are critical. The Commodores had a golden opportunity to continue the comeback they started late in the first half, and the Tigers had the challenge of stopping it.
And it was the Tigers who took charge. Less than two minutes into the half, their lead was back to 15 points at 35-20. And less than five minutes into the half, their lead was right back up to 20 points at 44-24. A layup by Ashley Earley and a 3-pointer by Hillary Hager cut it briefly back to 15, but with 10:39 left in the second half, Auburn had once again tied their biggest lead of the game at 21 points at 53-32.
As the old saying goes, the night is darkest before the dawn. As if things weren't bad enough, Tia Battle, who had been Vanderbilt's biggest spark of energy throughout the game, had just picked up her fifth foul. Chantelle Anderson had just missed two free throws, one too short and one too long.
And then, inexplicably, everything changed.
Anderson missed a jumper, but grabbed the rebound and was fouled when she attempted to put it back and sank both of the awarded free throws. Soon afterwards, she was fouled again and again sank both free throws.
Then Natasha Brackett fouled Ashley McElhiney in the backcourt, putting Vanderbilt into the bonus. McElhiney sank the front end of the 1&1, then made the bonus. After a 30-second Auburn timeout, Abi Ramsey grabbed a defensive rebound, then drained a 3-pointer on the other end to cut the Auburn lead back to 12 points at 53-41 with 6:59 remaining.
A couple of free throws by Tia Miller pushed the lead briefly back to 14, but the Commodores just kept chipping away. A pair of made free throws by Jenni Benningfield at the 5:32 mark cut the Auburn lead to single digits for the first time since early in the first half. A jumper by Anderson cut the deficit to 8 points at 59-51. Anderson was fouled on the shot, but when she missed the free throws, Hillary Hager grabbed the offensive rebound and put it back to further trim the lead to 59-53.
And then for the first time in her career that she, or anyone watching, could remember, Anderson drove the baseline, passed to Hager in the corner, who connected with Jenni Benningfield in the post who sank the basket to bring the Commodores with four at 59-55 with 3:41 left.
From there on the teams battled for the upper hand. A 3-pointer by Abi Ramsey cut the lead to 3 points with 2:24 left, but free throws by Mendisa Stevenson put the lead back to 5 points at 65-60 with 1:49 remaining, and with only 48 seconds left, Auburn led by 3 at 65-62.
Vanderbilt fouled to regain possession of the ball, and in this case, the strategy worked, as Nancy Derrick sank the first free throw, but missed the second, and Anderson grabbed the rebound, Then the opposite end of the court, Ashley McElhiney, who had missed her first five 3-point attempts, sank a 3-pointer to cut the Auburn lead to just one point with 39 seconds left at 66-65.
Then, with less than 20 seconds left in the game, Anderson tied up a loose ball, and the possession arrow gave the ball to Vanderbilt. The Commodores were able to find Anderson under the basket, and the All-American gave Vanderbilt their first lead of the night at 67-66 with 5 seconds left on the clock. On the opposite end, Le'Coe Willingham, who led all scorers with 19 points, missed a desperation shot, and the game was over, as the Commodore bench spilled onto the court in celebration.
Vanderbilt was led in scoring by Chantelle Anderson and Jenni Benningfield with 16 points each, followed by Abi Ramsey with 12, including 4 of 7 from 3-point range. Anderson was leading rebounder with 9. Three different Commodores each had three assists, and Ashley Earley had three steals.
Le'Coe Willingham led all scorers with 19 points for the Tigers. Natasha Brackett added 16, and Tia Miller had 10. Willingham and Mandisa Stevenson each had seven rebounds, and Nancy Derrick dished out five assists.
The Commodores, who shot a dismal 25% from the field in the first half (2 of 10 from 3-point range), shot 61% in the second half (4 of 8 from 3-point range) to finish at 41.2% for the game. After only making one of their first 15 shots in the game, the Commodores didn't miss a single shot from the field in the last five minutes of the game. The Tigers shot 41.8% for the game (50% from 3-point range). In the first half, Auburn was 6 of 9 from 3-point range, and in the second half, they only managed 1 of 5.
Perhaps reflecting the closeness of the game, the Tigers and the Commodores were dead even on rebounds at 34 each and on turnovers at 15 each. Vanderbilt had 13 assists; Auburn had 12. Auburn was 13 of 18 from the free throw line for 72.2%, while Vanderbilt was 19 or 23 for 82.6%.
With the victory, Vanderbilt improves to 13-6 overall (3-3 SEC), while Auburn falls to 14-5 (2-4 SEC). Next Vanderbilt returns home to play the Tennessee Lady Vols Sunday night at 6 p.m. CT in Memorial Gym in a nationally televised game, while Auburn travels to Mississippi for a Sunday afternoon matchup.
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Photos of Ashley McElhiney, Tia Battle driving, Melanie Balcomb, Battle cheering from the bench, McElhiney shooting a free throw, Jenni Benningfield watching from the sideline, Chantelle Anderson shooting, and Benningfield driving by Micah Miller for VandyMania.