Commodores hit free throws down stretch to hold off Tigers

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -- The Auburn Tigers did their best to shut down Christina Wirth, Vanderbilt's leading scorer. And they did -- until the Commodores needed her most.

Then she popped free and hit a jumper for her only points with 1:45 left. That broke a tie at 41, and Vanderbilt (No. 22 ESPN/USA Today, No. 21 AP) advanced to the semifinals of the Southeastern Conference tournament for the eighth time in nine years by holding off Auburn 49-44 Friday night.

"She killed us with that one at the end," Auburn coach Nell Fortner said. "Boy that was nice, [she] got a little free right there. We were switching in our man defense, I think that kept her from getting looks."

Wirth had missed her first eight shots. Hitting that one jumper let her teammates breathe easier.

"She had been so consistent for us ... and has been the go-to, has hit so many big shots," Vanderbilt coach Melanie Balcomb said. "She stepped up at the end and had that big shot. That says a lot about her maturity on the floor as a player."

Vanderbilt, the defending tournament champion, will play No. 3-ranked Tennessee, a 92-61 winner over Florida. The Commodores (23-7) have won four straight since losing to then-No. 1 Tennessee on Feb. 17. They are seeking their fourth tourney title in seven years, which also would be their third in as many tournaments at the Sommet Center one mile from their home gym.

Sixth-seeded Auburn (20-11) came in hoping to add another postseason win to help its chance for an NCAA Tournament bid. The Tigers were in the quarterfinals for the third time under Fortner, but they haven't reached the semifinals since 1997, when they won the title.

It was a defensive game, and the teams wound up setting a tournament record for the fewest combined points in a game with 93. That edged the 94 points they totaled in a 2002 quarterfinal game, and the 49 points were a season-low for Vanderbilt.

"I feel like I've just got done with a prize fight," Fortner said. "It was like one slug, then another slug. ... It was just a hard-fought defensive battle. The free-throw line really hurt us tonight. If we could have knocked those free throws down, it would've been nice."

Auburn stuck around thanks to the free throw line and the Commodores' own mistakes. The Tigers sank as many free throws (16-of-27) as Vandy attempted (12-of-16), and they scored 17 points off the Commodores' 19 turnovers

The Tigers instead went home early again at the hands of a rival that now has beaten them 13 straight times, although they came close to ending that skid.

DeWanna Bonner, the SEC's second-best scorer, hit two free throws with 2 minutes remaining to force the only tie of a game. Vanderbilt led throughout and by as much as 12.

After Wirth's jumper, Vandy hit its final six free throws in the final 65 seconds to clinch the victory, and Auburn managed only a jumper by Bonner with 1.2 seconds left. She finished with a game-high 23 points and 13 rebounds.

"We made a healthy comeback, and I'm proud of the team the way we played tonight," Bonner said.

Merideth Marsh and Jessica Mooney led Vandy with 10 points apiece.

The Commodores took advantage of a cold start by Auburn as the Tigers hit only one of their first eight shots and three of the first 17. Vanderbilt led 23-15 at halftime and scored the first two buckets of the second half to go up 27-15 on a basket by Hannah Tuomi.