9:15 PM ET, March 4, 2005
GREENVILLE, S.C. (AP) -- Ashley Earley had 21 points and 15 rebounds and Vanderbilt (No. 17 ESPN/USA Today, No. 18 AP) took the first step in defending its Southeastern Conference women's tournament title with a 79-60 victory over Arkansas on Friday night.Next up for the Commodores? Their longtime rival, Tennessee. The Lady Vols reached Saturday's semifinals with a 64-54 win over Auburn.Things didn't look so good for Vanderbilt (22-6) early in this one. Carla Thomas, the SEC tournament's most valuable player last year, crashed to the floor chasing a rebound less than five minutes into the game. Thomas laid on her back, shaking in pain, as trainers raised her left leg.But after getting helped up and walking behind the bench for a few minutes, Thomas returned to the game with a heavily taped knee. She finished with 11 points and 10 rebounds, her fourth double-double of the season.Earley took control of things in the second half. With the score tied at 37, Earley had a pair of inside baskets that put Vanderbilt up 41-38 with 13:29 left.Still, the 11th-seeded Lady Razorbacks (16-13) hung in, down 47-44 after Kristin Peoples' two foul shots. But Earley had the answer again, converting a three-point play and following with two foul shots to extend Vanderbilt's lead to 10 points.When Caroline Williams hit her third 3-pointer with 3:11 remaining, the Commodores were up 66-54.Arkansas couldn't get any closer.Dee Davis had 14 points for Vanderbilt, which won four straight to win the SEC tournament as the sixth seed in 2004. This time, the task could be even harder. Should they get by Tennessee, which easily won both matchups this season, No. 1 LSU could be waiting in Sunday's championship.Vanderbilt enters Saturday's semifinal having won nine of its past 10 games. The only blemish? A 72-63 loss at Tennessee.Rochelle Vaughn led the Lady Razorbacks with 20 points and Sarah Pfeifer had 16.