By David Dawson
NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Vanderbilt's final home game of the season unfolded like several others this month -- with the Commodores seeing a giant second-half surge fall short.
Continuing a challenging late-season stretch, Vanderbilt fell to No. 16 Mississippi State, 66-61, on Senior Night at Memorial Gym. It was the eighth consecutive loss for the Commodores (15-13, 4-11), who were playing their fifth straight game against a ranked opponent.
Mississippi State's Victoria Vivans, the SEC's second-leading scorer, finished with 21 points for the Bulldogs (23-6, 10-5). Rachel Bell led Vanderbilt with 14 points and Marqu'es Webb had 11 points and seven rebounds.
Vanderbilt trailed by as many as 16 points in the second half, but used a late push to trim the deficit to 58-55 after a 3-pointer by Rebekah Dahlman with 33 seconds remaining in the game. But Mississippi State's Morgan William made four consecutive free throws to push the Bulldogs' lead out to 62-55 with 24 seconds left, and the Commodores were unable to get closer than five points from there.
"We always make a game of it at the end," said Vanderbilt head coach Melanie Balcomb. "To start games we're struggling (and) we're getting behind right away. That's because we're waiting to see how hard they're going to hit us and we're timid at first. We're pretty consistent in who we are. … The tough part is, you're playing a top 15 team every night, so it looks like we've gotten worse when we've really gotten a lot better."
Vanderbilt senior Morgan Batey had 12 points and four rebounds in the loss. Christa Reed added 11 points for the Commodores, who converted 21-of-25 attempts (84 percent) from the foul line. Webb was 9-of-10 from the line.
It was an emotional night for the Commodores as the program recognized five four-year players -- Kendall Shaw, Jasmine Jenkins, Rayte'a Long, Kristen Gaffney and Batey -- during a ceremony before the start of the game.
"It's kind of surreal," said Batey. "It seems like (freshman, sophomore year) was just yesterday. It's been a crazy ride, and I wouldn't have asked for a different group of girls to have it with."
Thursday's defeat was Vanderbilt's fifth consecutive home loss and dropped their record to 10-6 at Memorial Gym this season.
Plagued by cold shooting, the Commodores fell behind 14-3 in the first 6½ minutes of the game. Vivans hit a pair of 3-pointers to fuel Mississippi State's early run.
Vanderbilt, however, used gritty defense and some good work at the foul line to chip away at the deficit for the remainder of the half. The Commodores trailed just 31-25 at the break after Long knocked down a jumper in the final seconds of the second quarter.
Mississippi State opened the second half with a 15-5 run to take a 46-30 lead on a layup by Breanna Richardson with 4:15 left in the third quarter but again the Commodores responded. They closed the deficit to seven points early in the fourth quarter and eventually pulled within 58-55 on Dahlman's 3-pointer with 33 seconds to play. Mississippi State, however, fended off the Commodores by converting eight free throws in the final 24 seconds.
"We didn't start the game well," said Jenkins. "And once we did start playing well, we (were just) trading baskets. When we are down 14 points, we can't trade baskets."
Vanderbilt closes the regular season Sunday at Missouri, then opens play in the SEC Tournament on Wednesday.