Feb. 19, 2009
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Postgame press conference - Wirth, Risper, Malo
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -- If the Vanderbilt Commodores want to win their first regular season Southeastern Conference title, they're going to have to play as well on the road as they have at home.
And they have been very, very good in Memorial Gym.
Merideth Marsh hit two free throws with 11 seconds left, and No. 18 Vanderbilt held off third-ranked Auburn 73-70 Thursday night and tied the Tigers atop the SEC with two games left in the regular season. It's the Commodores' second upset of a Top 10 team within eight days as they finished up the league schedule undefeated at home.
Now the challenge comes as Vanderbilt (21-6, 10-2) goes to Mississippi on Sunday and wraps up the season March 1 at Tennessee -- a place where the Commodores have never won.
"We're starting to figure things out," Vanderbilt senior Christina Wirth said. "This is always when we start playing our best basketball at the end of the season when we should be. It takes a while to figure that out. We've done that. ... Now we're growing up as a team, we're going to go on the road and take care of business."
Auburn (25-2, 10-2) snapped a five-game winning streak and missed a chance to clinch at least a share of its first SEC regular season title since 1999. The Tigers have lost 14 straight in this series. But they wrap up the regular season with two home games, and coach Nell Fortner reminded that the loss is disappointing, not ruinous.
"The road is a tough place to play. We didn't knock shots down in the first half and shot the ball better in the second half. Our defense was great in the second half, and we will learn. We will get better from it," Fortner said.
The Tigers led only once at 3-0 on DeWanna Bonner's opening 3-pointer and trailed by 18. But they pulled to 71-70 on a bucket underneath by Trevesha Jackson with 11.6 seconds left. Sherell Hobbs' 3-pointer from the right corner was well short, and the Commodores rebounded just before the buzzer.
"It was awful tough because they fought back," Vanderbilt coach Melanie Balcomb said. "They're a great team, and we just had a good cushion. We didn't foul. We almost got tentative and didn't get the transition buckets. But down the stretch, everybody made big plays that we needed."
Jence Rhoads had a career-high 16 points for Vanderbilt. Wirth and fellow senior Jennifer Risper had 14 apiece. Risper said a lot of people had asked if they were focused on Senior Night.
"The biggest thing we set a goal to win the SEC, and that started with tonight. So I think we were more concerned with that than we were anything else," Risper said.
Hobbs led Auburn with 19 points. Alli Smalley had 15, Bonner finished with 13, and Whitney Boddie 10.
Auburn came in as the SEC's top scoring offense and best shooting team, and the Tigers had been beating opponents by an average of 17.5 points. This time, the Tigers started slowly, missing six straight shots after Bonner's opening 3. Vandy, the nation's seventh-best shooters, hit four of its first five.
Bonner said they were a little passive early against Vandy's good defense.
"We got up great shots in the first half, just didn't knock them down," Bonner said.
Wirth's layup put Vandy ahead to stay as part of eight straight points, and the Commodores went into halftime up 40-24. They drove to the basket repeatedly for easy layups as Wirth said they took advantage of Auburn's starters trying to stay out of foul trouble.
"While someone may be there, they're not really coming over to block their shots. I think we did a great job of recognizing that and attacking that," Wirth said.
Bonner opened the second half with a putback that gave her 2,001 points for her career to start a 9-2 spurt. Auburn kept whittling away at Vandy's lead until Jackson scored underneath to pull the Tigers within 71-70 with 11.6 seconds left, then Auburn fouled quickly.
But Marsh had hit 19 straight free throws coming into this game, and she didn't miss with a chance to pad the lead. Vandy then fouled with 3.1 seconds left with a couple to give, forcing Auburn into a quick scramble and a late shot that came nowhere near the basket.