Vanderbilt advances to the Sweet 16

March 23, 2009

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Too bad Vanderbilt can’t play the entire NCAA tournament at The Pit.

Jennifer Risper scored a career-high 27 points and Christina Wirth added 24 as fourth-seeded Vanderbilt beat fifth-seeded Kansas State 74-61 in the NCAA’s second round on Monday night.

“I have a lot more guard skills than post skills,” the 5-foot-9 Risper said. “I just tried to take advantage and use the skills I do well — driving, getting to the hole … just trying to be stronger, be physical.”

The Commodores (26-8) advanced to the semifinals of the Raleigh regional, where they’ll play next weekend against the winner of Tuesday night’s contest between Maryland and Utah.

Ashley Sweat led the Wildcats (25-8) with 17 points while Marlies Gipson scored 16 and Shalee Lehning had 10.

Vanderbilt won twice at The Pit in last season’s NCAA tournament. Now, the Commodores are 4-0 over the past two years in Albuquerque.

“I love this place,” Wirth said. “We were excited when we knew we were coming here again because for me and Jen, it means our families could come. But it’s not all about that. We were ready to play.”

Kansas State fell flat midway through the second half and never recovered. Risper scored four points during an 11-0 burst that helped Vanderbilt pull away from what had been a tight game since tipoff.

“We started to wear them down when we got in transition as much as we could,” Commodores coach Melanie Balcomb said. “I think that made a big difference. I think our kids rebounded better, defended better and took the 3-point shot away.”

Risper, who shot 9-of-12 from the field and 9-of-10 on free throws, started it with an assist to Wirth, who scored inside. Lauren Lueders scored, then Risper added a pair of free throws and got free inside for another basket.

Merideth Marsh, who was 0-for-4 at that point, hit a 3-pointer to give Vanderbilt a 59-48 lead with 7:37 remaining.

“Everybody helped out tonight,” said Balcomb, who urged her team to step it up. They did. During the decisive burst, the Commodores tightened their defense, quickened the tempo and attacked the basket. They also limited Kansas State’s potent outside shooters, which Balcomb said didn’t happen in the first half.

“We began to struggle on the offensive end,” Kansas State coach Deb Patterson said. “We had some turnovers on a couple of possessions. Vanderbilt began to get aggressive offensively and they had a few extra possession.”

Another big key: The Commodores slowed Lehning, Kansas State’s standout point guard. Two nights after she matched a career high with 13 assists, Lehning had just four with four turnovers.

Vanderbilt’s Jessica Mooney handled most of the defensive assignment on Lehning but Marsh helped out, too.

“They did an amazing job,” Lehning said. “They brought pressure on us and did a good job mixing up their matchups with the girls that guarded me. I could never get comfortable.”

Risper chipped in on defense, too. Forced to defend the post because forward Hannah Tuomi has a stress fracture in her left ankle, the shorter Risper went underneath and turned in a respectable effort against Gipson and Sweat.

“She’s not small. She’s got a big heart,” Balcomb said. “I’ve got to tell you, she’s got a bigger heart than anybody. She plays big.”

The Commodores beat Kansas State 63-60 in a second-round NCAA game in 2005.