Vandy's Balcomb Confident Of More Success

FAYETTEVILLE -- In both of Melanie Balcomb's first two years as Vanderbilt women's basketball coach, the Commodores have lost on last-second shots in the NCAA Tournament.

Last year it was Stanford that did the damage, 57-55, in the third round of the Midwest Regional.

But Vanderbilt had the fun of winning the Southeastern Conference Tournament, without playing favored Tennessee. The Commodores, after an 8-6 SEC season, ran through Kentucky, Auburn, LSU and Georgia in four nights.

In the interest of doing even better than their 26-8 record of last season, Balcomb put the word "Commitment" on the back of her team's practice shirts this year.

"That's what the players want their motto to be," Balcomb said. "I talked to (seniors) Abi Ramsey and Ashley Earley about it."

Ramsey, a 5-foot-10 guard, averaged 13.2 points last season to tie the departed Jenni Benningfield for highest on the team. Early, also 5-10, was fourth with an 11.5 mark.

Fifth was 6-3 Carla Thomas, who averaged 10.2 points and 5 rebounds as a freshman and has received preseason recognition on the All-SEC Team.

So even without Benningfield and graduated guard Hillary Hager (11.7 average), the Commodores can ring the basket.

"We feel very confident on offense, but we need some defensive stops," Balcomb said. "I think the fact that we beat Auburn in the SEC Tournament with a defensive stop will help us."

After seven years at Xavier, Balcomb was still feeling her way at Vanderbilt and in the SEC last season.

"My first year, it was like having 14 freshmen," she said. "They don't know any of your drills. Last year it was better, and this year we only have two new plays."

Balcomb did a lot of talking to her players about the mental part of the game last season, and it paid dividends at the end.

"We won four games in four days in the SEC Tournament, with four kids with the flu," Balcomb said. "We knew we were in condition, and that gave us the ability to come back in games. We talked to the kids about making reads on the floor."

Though No. 1 Tennessee, No. 2 LSU and Georgia made most preseason pollsters' Top 5, Vanderbilt was picked third in the SEC.

"Playing in this league is extremely challenging," Balcomb said. "We try to sell that to recruits. To be the best, you've got to play the best, and we play against some of the best athletes in the country."

Although Balcomb said she can never relax in the dog-eat-dog SEC, she added, "As a coach, it's exciting. You're coaching against the best players, and that's where you want to be."

Before the Commodores won 10 straight games leading to their loss to Stanford, they were just the sixth-ranked team in the SEC.

"That will tell you how deep the SEC is," Balcomb said. "We were in the Top 20, and sixth in our league."

Vanderbilt returns seven letterwinners from last season, but added just one newcomer -- 6-foot freshman Katie Eggers of Nelson, New Zealand.

A big key will be replacing the leadership of Benningfield, who oftentimes simply would not let the Commodores lose.

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