By David Dawson
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- The Vanderbilt women have been very good at protecting late-game leads this season.
In the opening round of the SEC Tournament on Wednesday night, the Commodores not only protected a lead in the final five minutes, they extended it. And extended their season, too.
With a trio of underclassmen leading the way, No. 11-seeded Vanderbilt pulled away down the stretch to defeat No. 14-seeded Alabama 66-56 at Verizon Arena and advance to a second-round matchup against Kentucky.
Redshirt freshman Rebekah Dahlman and true freshman Paris Kea scored 16 points apiece and sophomore Marqu'es Webb added 14 points and seven rebounds to help Vanderbilt (15-15) snap a three-game losing streak. Ashley Williams scored a game-high 21 for the Tide (13-19), which ended the season on a six-game skid.
Vanderbilt was clinging to a shaky four-point lead with 5:08 to play, but used a series of clutch plays and some solid work at the foul line -- making 4-of-5 attempts in the final 1:37 -- to secure the victory.
The Commodores, who will face No. 6-seeded and No. 12-ranked Kentucky on Thursday at 7:30 p.m., improved 11-0 in games in which they own the lead with five minutes remaining.
"(Tonight) was one of those games where we stuck with the game plan, and we wore them down," said Vanderbilt head coach Melanie Balcomb. "We did what we needed to do."
Vanderbilt didn't attempt many free throws or 3-pointers in the game. But the Commodores were efficient in both categories, finishing 3-of-5 from 3-point range and 5-of-6 at the foul line.
The Commodores also won the rebounding battle, 34-27, and took care of the ball, committing a season-low11 turnovers.
Dahlman finished 6-of-9 from the floor, including 3-of-4 from 3-point range. Kea had four assists and four rebounds to along with her 16 points, and Webb -- who was shooting 67.8 percent in the previous five games -- went 6-of-10 from the field. Morgan Batey had nine rebounds.
"I'm really proud of how we handled the game," said Balcomb. "We played really consistent. That was good to see because we have been inconsistent. We played well."
Vanderbilt took its first of the lead of the night at the 14:53 mark of the first half, and the Commodores never trailed again. But pesky Alabama stayed within striking distance much of the way.
After Vanderbilt put together a 15-4 run midway through the first half to build a 22-11 lead, the Tide closed the half on a 13-4 surge to trim the Commodores lead to 26-24. Alabama then tied the game on two occasions early in the second half, and trailed by only four points after Nikki Hegstetter, who finished with 10 points, hit a pair of free throws with 5:08 remaining.
But Vanderbilt's Jasmine Jenkins delivered two pivotal plays to help the Commodores establish control. Jenkins got loose for a layup at the 4:57 mark and then came up with a steal on Alabama's ensuing possession, leading to a layup for Kea and giving Vanderbilt a 60-52 lead with 4:42 to go.
Kea then converted another layup to cap Vanderbilt's 6-0 run and give the Commodores a 62-52 advantage with 2:59 to go. Vanderbilt closed out the win with Kea and Webb making two free throws each.
Jenkins finished with eight points and a team-high five assists. Batey -- who was not in the starting lineup for the first time this season -- came off the bench to score six points and pulled down a team-high nine rebounds. Rayte'a Long also made several key contributions to the win, scoring four points and grabbing four rebounds.
"This was a really good team win," said Balcomb. "We played two halves as a team."
Vanderbilt has now won at least one game in SEC Tournament in 12 of 13 seasons during Balcomb's tenure.