"I never saw this start coming," said Head Coach Melanie Balcomb. "I have to give credit to Kentucky. They came out energized and physical and put us on our heels right away. We should have been ready after playing them twice. We didn't respond well."
Kentucky romped to a 20-2 run in the first 10 minutes, dictating and denying an inside game while forcing 25 turnovers which produced 27 points for UK. Kentucky's quick hands and close contact produced 11 steals to Vandy's two. Tiffany Clarke led Vandy scoring with 18 and grabbed a career high 17 boards for her sixth double-double of the season. Hannah Tuomi scored 12, Jasmine Lister 11 and Elan Brown 10 before fouling out. In the first 20 minutes, Vandy sank just 5 of 25 shots, including a 3-pointer by Angela Puleo at the buzzer.
Vandy did not have an answer for Victoria Dunlap, the SEC's Defensive Player of the Year. The forward led Kentucky with 22 points and 11 rebounds for her eighth double-double of the year. Wildcat Brittany Henderson pulled down 18 boards to lead that category.
"We definitely fought back and became the aggressor in the second half," said Clarke. "We were more physical, attacked more and got to the free throw line. It was a little too late for it to happen."
Senior leader Hannah Tuomi agreed, saying there would be no excuses—Vandy should have been ready. "In the second half we were ready to attack. We drove, kicked, hit some shots. You need to put 40 minutes together, not just 20 to win a game."
Kentucky's up-tempo, aggressive posture unsettled Vandy early, but there was fight was under the surface. Coach Balcomb readied her team at the break, and said it was motivation to not end the game embarrassed "in our own city in the SEC Tournament by another team. You had better fight back, and it better be your best effort."
She was pleased with the latter effort, and particularly with the five players who ended the game – Jence Rhoads, Tuomi, Clarke, Jasmine Lister and Elan Brown, who fouled out with 40 seconds left.
By cutting Kentucky's lead to eight with 3:07 left in the game, and again at 1:40, Brown said "just fighting back from that large deficit showed that we didn't just lay down, that we had fight in us. If we had started out better, we would have had a much better shot to win. We play our best with our backs against the wall. We should have played that way the first half."
Kentucky Head Coach Matthew Mitchell told his team that they could never count Vanderbilt out. "As you could see, being up 27 points wasn't enough. Any time you play a team that can drive as well, post up as well, and be so explosive offensively, there are never out of it."
Looking at improvements that will need to be made should Vanderbilt be selected for the NCAA Tournament, Coach Balcomb said individual accountability on team roles is a must, along with toughness, physical play and communication.
"When we had adversity at times, we looked like we were all playing on an island by ourselves and stopped communicating. Everybody felt like they were out there by themselves instead of playing as a team. Apparently we'll have a little time to practice here and they'll be mine for awhile. That's always a good thing," she said to the amusement of assembled media.
Kentucky plays Tennessee in the SEC Tournament Championship for the third time in school history and the second year in a row. The game tips off at 5:30 p.m. CST at Bridgestone Arena and will be carried by ESPN.