Women's Hoops Scouting Report: Missouri
Sports mess with your mind. They throw all sorts of curveballs at you. Vanderbilt basketball fans realized this for better and for worse in a stretch of roughly 28 hours in Gainesville, Florida.
Wednesday night, Vanderbilt’s men’s team played exceptionally well at the defensive end of the floor, only to give up a game-winning dunk in the final seconds and lose to Florida by a whisker. The defense carried the offense on a night when only one player (Riley LaChance) provided a high level of scoring production, but in the final seconds, that defense couldn’t make a game-sealing play. Vanderbilt was brought in touch with the cruelty of competitive athletics.
The very next night, on the same O’Connell Center floor in Gainesville, Vanderbilt’s women’s team played quite well at the offensive end of the floor. If the male version of VU-UF was all defense and no offense, the women’s version was very much the opposite. In 45 game minutes, the Commodores and Gators scorched the nets, hitting a combined 61 of 114 shots, over 50 percent. (A 57-of-114 stat line, as a point of comparison, would have been 50 percent on the dot.) Yes, VU hit only 10 of 20 foul shots, a hard-to-believe stat in light of the fact that the Dores hit 58 percent of their field goal tries, but the fact remained that both teams flourished as long as they didn’t turn the ball over.
Yet, in the midst of the quality showcased by both teams at the offensive end of the floor, Vanderbilt’s defense managed to produce stops at the end of both regulation time and overtime. The Commodores didn’t flummox Florida’s offense for much of the night, but they held firm at the end of regulation to preserve a tie. Then, at the end of overtime – with a one-point lead – VU forced Florida to call multiple timeouts. The Gators never got off a shot, and Melanie Balcomb’s team walked away with a one-point win.
Play great on defense, lose on a last-second dunk. Struggle on defense, get last-second stops in both regulation and OT. Vanderbilt’s men and women authored different stories against Florida on Wednesday and Thursday – they both featured the upside-down components of sports and reminded us why these games can be so baffling. Yet, the VU women ended up on the sunshine side of this divide.
It has to feel great when the flow of a given game reveals a specific weakness, only for that weakness to become strong in a time of acute need. Vanderbilt’s ability to raise its level of defensive toughness when the moment demanded it could infuse this team with a final dose of inspiration heading into this last week of February. Yes, Tennessee looms on the schedule in a week, but VU has to first take care of business against Missouri, followed by Auburn next Thursday.
There’s something else that would make Vanderbilt feel really good as the season winds toward its conclusion: Being able to put together an authoritative SEC win against a team in the lower tier of the conference. That hasn’t happened once this season, because the only authoritative SEC win this team has produced in 2015 came against upper-tier member Mississippi State. There are six teams in the SEC with conference records of 8-5 or better, and eight teams with sub-.500 records. Vanderbilt is still waiting for its first win of more than four points against any of those other seven squads with losing conference marks. Let’s see how VU will fare against Missouri.
The Tigers have won only once on the road in the SEC, and that was at Florida, the same team VU just defeated in Gainesville. Balcomb and her assistant coaches will surely notice that Missouri figured out Florida this season, sweeping the Gators and doing so convincingly. The Tigers beat Florida by 19 at home and by 16 on the road. Seeing how Missouri played Florida could give Balcomb a cross-comparison which will unearth particular ways to attack the Tigers.
Missouri’s foremost virtue is its defense, which is why – as much as VU might crave a 12- or 15-point victory – any winning result will surely be accepted. Keep in mind that women’s basketball uses the 30-second shot clock the men’s game will experiment with in the upcoming NIT. More possessions fill a women’s collegiate game, and yet Missouri’s defense has shown that it can handle the rigors of SEC competition. Against good teams – Tennessee on the road, Mississippi State at home, South Carolina at home, A&M at home – Missouri has not allowed more than 63 points. Even in slow-paced games, the 30-second shot clock makes that feat an impressive one. The SEC has consistently been the deepest, most contentious conference in women’s college basketball over an extended period of time. This season, the fact that Missouri – which limits opponents to 34.3-percent shooting from the field – is 4-9 in the SEC shows how very competitive this league is from top to bottom.
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