COOKEVILLE, Tenn. –Down seven points early in the second half, the Auburn women's basketball team (15-16) responded with an 11-3 run to take a lead it would not give up in a 68-54 win at Tennessee Tech (23-8) in the first round of the WNIT.
Auburn scored the last 11 points of the game, including a 7-of-8 mark from the free throw line in the last 1:06 to secure the win. Senior Alli Smalley scored a team-high 17 points, leading four Tigers in double figures.
After TTU started the second half on a run to take the lead, it was a defensive change that made the difference for Auburn down the stretch. After going down seven, Auburn out-scored Tennessee Tech 35-14 the rest of the game.
"I thought going to the zone in the second half made the difference," said Auburn head coach Nell Fortner. "We were struggling guarding their on-ball penetration. Our on-ball defense wasn't very effective. We went down seven, switched to the zone and I thought we did a great job slowing them down."
Behind Smalley's 17 points was Chantel Hilliard with 13 and Morgan Jennings with 11. Tyrese Tanner came off the bench for 10 point and three blocked shots. Sophomore Blanche Alverson pulled down a game-high nine rebounds.
"It was a total team effort, everyone contributed today and we needed everyone to," said Fortner. "We've had a couple weeks off and we were a little rusty. Once we got going in the second half, I thought we started playing much better."
Along with her team-high points, Smalley also pulled down five rebounds along with a game-high seven assists.
"Alli Smalley is the senior on this team and she did a great job leading us today," said Fortner. "She played like a senior plays, she doesn't want to quit playing and the team followed her lead."
The teams traded the lead in the first half with neither team leading by more than four points. The Golden Eagles, the Ohio Valley Conference regular-season champion, took a 30-29 lead into the lockerroom at halftime.
A layup from TTU's Brittany Darling and six quick points from Tacarra Hayes, who scored a game-high 20 points, gave the Golden Eagles their biggest lead of the night at seven, 38-33. The teams traded baskets before Auburn went on a run of its own, out-scoring Tennessee Tech 15-3 over the next eight minutes to take a five-point lead.
Auburn never gave up the lead, connecting on its free throws down the stretch for the 14-point, 68-54, win. The victory gives the Tigers an 8-1 record all-time in the WNIT.
Hayes led Tennessee Tech with her 20 points, followed by Briana Jordan with 12. Center Brittany Darling scored seven along with her team-high seven rebounds.
Auburn shot 43.9 percent from the field, including a 53.8 percent mark in the second half. The Tigers also won the rebounding battle, 47-36. Auburn pulled down 15 offensive rebounds, turning them in to 15 second-chance points. TTU shot 31.3 percent from the field and was held to 26.3 percent from 3-point range.
The Tigers stay alive in the WNIT and will now head to Toledo, Ohio, for a second-round matchup at Toledo (24-8). The Rockets downed Delaware 58-55 in its first-round game. Auburn and Toledo will tip off at 11 a.m. CT, Saturday.
Auburn University will host the first and second rounds of the 2011 NCAA Women's Basketball Championship, Sunday and Tuesday at Auburn Arena. Tickets are available now at AUBTix.com.
Follow Auburn women's basketball on Twitter at twitter.com/AuburnWBB.