By David Dawson
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- In the final game of a tough season, the Vanderbilt women delievered a performance that provided optimism for the future.
Facing No. 6-seeded and 12th-ranked Kentucky in the second round of the SEC Tournament on Thursday night, the No. 11-seeded Commodores played one of their best games of the season but fell short of the upset in a 67-61 season-ending loss.
Vanderbilt (15-16) trailed by only three points after a jumper by freshman Paris Kea with 1:26 to play, but came up empty on several key possessions down the stretch. Kentucky (22-8) converted 3-of-4 free throws in the final 1:14 to fend off the young Commodores, who have no seniors on the roster.
Kentucky's Jennifer O'Neill scored a game-high 19 points and Linnae Harper added 18 as the Wildcats advanced to play Mississippi State in the quarterfinals on Friday. Sophomore Marqu'es Webb scored 18 points and redshirt freshman Rebekah Dahlman had 10 points and 10 rebounds for the Commodores (15-16), who saw five underclassmen combine to score 43 of the team's 61 points.
"I think (this game) shows us that we can be the team we want to be, and we're heading in that direction," said Vanderbilt head coach Melanie Balcomb. "I think it means a lot to end on this kind of positive. It showed us what we needed to see to go forward."
The loss sent the Commodores into the offseason much earlier than normal, as Vanderbilt saw its streak of 15 consecutive appearances in the NCAA Tournament come to an end. But there are plenty of reasons to believe that the young Commodores won't be absent from the NCAA Tournament for long.
Vanderbilt, which defeated Alabama 66-56 in the opening round on Wednesday, stayed within striking distance of the explosive Wildcats throughout the game, keeping the small but energetic crowd entertained until the final moments. Vanderbilt fell behindby 14 points in the first eight minutes but stormed back to take a one-point lead at the half, and then kept things tight throughout the final 20 minutes.
"Coach (Balcomb) always says to not look at the scoreboard; just go out there and fight," said Webb. "That's what we did. We fought when we were down. We fought when we were up. We fought the whole game. That's a huge positive to take out of this game."
The game's pivotal play came with 44 seconds remaining. With the Commodores trailing by four points, Rebekah Dahlman made an aggressive move to the basket, and converted a layup. But Dahlman was called for an offensive foul -- her fifth foul of the game -- and Kentucky was able to keep the Commodores at bay from there.
"That was a tough call," said Balcomb. "It would have been a great play for us, but it turned out to be the opposite."
The Commodores, who have been hampered by injuries all season, finished the yearwith a losing record for the first time since the 1998-99 campaign.
"It's been an interesting year; different than any other season I've ever been in," said Balcomb. "I think it took us a while, with so many young players, then you throw in a lot of injuries to that, for us to get into a flow. (It took time to develop our) rotation and roles, all the things that make up a team, chemistry on and off the court, consistency, and consistency leads to trust."
Jasmine Jenkins finished with12 points for the Commodores, who endured a rough start to the game. They fell behind 16-2 in the opening 7 1/2 minutes after Kentucky reeled off 16 straight points. But a 3-pointer by freshman Rachel Bell got Vanderbilt on track, and the Commodores closed the half on a 23-8 run to build a 25-24 halftime lead.
Dahlman hit a 3-pointer with 2:39 left in the half to give Vanderbilt's its first lead, 23-22. After Kentucky answered with a basket, Jenkins hit a jumper with 28 seconds remaining to put the Commodores in front at the half.
The teams traded baskets for the first six minutes of the second half, and Vanderbilt owned a 39-38 lead after a basket by Kea with 13:49 to play. But Kentucky, fueled by a flurry of points from O'Neill, put together a 16-3 run to build a 54-42 lead with 8:57 remaining. O'Neill scored eight points during the run, including knocking down a 3-pointer and converting a three-point play.
Vanderbilt rallied back with a 9-2 run in the closing minutes, pulling within 64-61 on Kea's jumper with 1:26 to go. But the Commodores' comeback bid ended there.
"We dug ourselves a hole and we got out of it. That's a positive," said Webb. "We stayed together and believed in each other for 40 minutes, the entire game. We didn't look at the scoreboard, we just went out there and played basketball."