At first, the game was nip-and-tuck. Vanderbilt started off the scoring when Ashley McElhiney banked in an off-balance shot as the shot clock was winding down, but Monique BIvinis countered with a 3-pointer on the other end.
And that's how it went for the first ten minutes with one team taking the lead, then other grabbing it back. When Chantelle Anderson, who started the game despite the pain from her dislocated big toe, picked up her second foul with 12:27 left in the first half and headed for the bench, Alabama led by a slim 10-9 margin.
But then, with Anderson on the bench, the Commodores began to slowly pull away. Ashley McElhiney's second 3-pointer of the night gave the Commodores a 12-10 lead, a lead that they would never relinquish for the remainder of the game. After a made free throw by Natasha Gamble, Jenni Benningfield's first 3-pointer of the game kicked off a 20-2 Vanderbilt run to give the Commodores a 32-13 lead with 4:31 left in the half. The highlight of the big Vanderbilt run was a 3-pointer by McElhiney which pushed her over the 1,000-point mark for her career.
The teams then traded baskets for the remainder of the half, and when they headed to the locker room for halftime, Vanderbilt held an 18 point lead at 34-16.
But the Crimson Tide was not going to go away quietly. In the first few minutes of the half, Vanderbilt was able to push the lead to 21 points at 42-21 on yet another 3-pointer by McElhiney on a fast break. But then it was time for Alabama's run. Thanks to pressure defense, offensive rebounding, and some timely 3-point shooting, the Tide whittled the Vanderbilt lead down to a mere 4 points at 51-47 with 9:45 remaining in the game.
But then the Commodores regained their composure and squelched the Alabama surge. Benningfield scored in the low block, got the foul, then sank the free throw. After Alabama's Shun Hunter countered with a basket, Ashley Earley hit the front end of a 1&1, but when she missed the bonus, Hillary Hager grabbed the offensive rebound, ultimately leading to a 3-pointer by Abi Ramsey to push Vanderbilt's lead back to nine points at 58-49.
Although Bivins countered with a 3-pointer on the other end, the handwriting was on the wall. Alabama's aggressive defense sent a succession of Commodores to the free throw line. Led by Hillary Hager's 6 of 6 from the line, down the stretch Vanderbilt hit 10 of 13 free throws. In addition, Chantelle Anderson sank a couple of layups off fast breaks to help seal the 80-69 Vanderbilt victory.
Vanderbilt was led in scoring by Jenni Benningfield with 19 points, followed by Ashley McElhiney with 18 including five 3-pointers, Chantelle Anderson who shot a perfect 7 of 7 from the field, and Hillary Hager with 13. Benningfield was also leading rebounder with 11 boards, followed by Hager with five. Benningfield's 19 points and 11 rebounds marked her eighth double double of the season. McElhiney dished out 7 assists, and Benningfield had 5. Benningfield and Abi Ramsey each had 3 steals.
Alabama also had four players in double figures. Natasha Gamble led the Tide with 15, followed by Shun Hunter with 13, Monique Bivins with 12, and Katie Sipe with 10. Gamble led Alabama in rebounds with 10.
For the game, the Commodores shot 59.6% from the field, including a sizzling 71.4% in the second half, while the Crimson Tide shot 47.4% for the game. From 3-point range, Vanderbilt shot 40% (10 of 25), while Alabama shot 35% (8 for 23). Alabama held a slight edge on the boards 26-25, and in turnovers with 17 compared to 18 for Vanderbilt.
With the victory, Vanderbilt improves to 17-4 (4-4 SEC) while Alabama falls to 11-10 (1-7 SEC). Next Vanderbilt has two road. First, the Commodores travel to Kentucky for a Sunday afternoon game against the Wildcats. Then, next Thursday they travel to Oxford to play the Ole Miss Lady Rebels before returning home on February 16 to host #17 Georgia.
Photos of Ashley McElhiney scoring her 1000th point, Ashley Earley , Jenni Benningfield, Chantelle Anderson and Coach Melanie Balcomb by Micah Miller for VandyMania.