'Dores advance to NCAA second round

March 21, 2009

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Make it 3-0 at The Pit for the Vanderbilt Commodores.

Christina Wirth scored 23 points and Jennifer Risper had 11 points and nine rebounds as fourth-seeded Vanderbilt beat No. 13 Western Carolina 73-44 Saturday night, ending the Lady Catamounts’ 10-game winning streak.

Vanderbilt (25-8), in the NCAA tournament for the 10th straight year, made its second straight trip to Albuquerque. Last year, the Commodores beat Montana and West Virginia to advance to the regional semifinals.

This time, it was a case of defense fueling the offense. Vanderbilt held Western Carolina (21-12) to 28 percent shooting (16-of-57) from the floor.

“I thought we did a good job of communicating,” Wirth said. “On the switches, our smaller players did a good job on them until we were able to switch back. Besides, we think it creates some mismatches for the other team.”Lauren Powell and Brooke Johnson led Western Carolina (21-12) with eight points apiece.

Wirth played well here last spring, scoring 13 in the opening win over Montana and 21 in the victory that carried Vanderbilt to the regional semifinals.

She was named Most Valuable Player of the SEC tournament after averaging 20.3 points in her team’s victories over Georgia, LSU and Auburn. After shooting 3-for-10 in the first half, Wirth offered no hint that she plans to slow down in the NCAAs.

“We haven’t played a game in two weeks,” Wirth said. “It took us a while to get in rhythm.”

Western Carolina scored seven straight points to pull within 41-29 and force a timeout by Commodores coach Melanie Balcomb at the 12:22 mark.

But Wirth quickly ended Western’s spurt with a jumper in the lane, then hit two 3-pointers and drove for another bucket as Vanderbilt went on a 12-2 burst that put the Commodores ahead 53-31 with 9:31 to go.

“We made an adjustment and did not give up a 3 in the second half,” Balcomb said. “Tina did a great job in the paint and our guards did a great job. In the second half, the only way they scored was off the dribble and we didn’t think that was their strength.”

Not only that, Wirth often drew the defensive assignment against Johnson, Western Carolina’s 6-foot-4 forward, who averaged 18.3 points and nine rebounds during the Southern Conference tournament.

“It gave us a lot of confidence,” Risper said, discussing Wirth’s defense. “When we saw her take care of the post, it allowed us to use our strength, which is in transition.”

Johnson scored six of her eight points in the second half. She was 3-of-11 from the field with seven rebounds.

Vanderbilt took control in the first half, using an 11-2 run over the last 6:16 of the opening 20 minutes to lead 29-18 at the break.

The Catamounts couldn’t find an offensive rhythm and struggled all night against Vanderbilt’s fullcourt press.

Coach Kellie Harper, who won three national titles as Tennessee’s point guard from 1996-98, urged her players to be aggressive but they didn’t shoot a free throw until Kendra Eaton made 1-of-2 with 14:16 remaining.

Asked whether it was Vanderbilt’s defense or the NCAA jitters that caused so many problems, Powell blamed both.

“That’s not the way we want to shoot,” Powell said. “When you’re not shooting well, you have to make sure and take care of the defensive ends of things and we didn’t do that.”