Benningfield gets 29, Commodores win exhibition

NASHVILLE-- Five Commodores scored in double figures to lead Vanderbilt to a 98-95 victory over the Premiere Players in the first exhibition game of the season Tuesday. Senior forward Jenni Benningfield led all scorers with 29 points, while senior guard Hillary Hager (18 points, 15 rebounds) and freshman point guard Dee Davis (11 points, 12 assists) both recorded double doubles.

NASHVILLE-- Five Commodores scored in double figures to lead Vanderbilt to a 98-95 victory over the Premiere Players in the first exhibition game of the season Tuesday. Senior forward Jenni Benningfield led all scorers with 29 points, while senior guard Hillary Hager (18 points, 15 rebounds) and freshman point guard Dee Davis (11 points, 12 assists) both recorded double doubles.

The starting lineup featured two true freshmen, Dee Davis at point guard and Katie Antony at shooting guard. Senior forward Jenni Benningfield, senior guard Hillary Hager, and junior forward Ashley Earley filled the other slots.

Throughout the game, Head Coach Melanie Balcomb experimented with a variety of lineups, often putting three freshmen on the floor at the same time. Two Commodores were in street clothes on the bench and unavailable for play. Junior guard Abi Ramsey was held out of the game due to a violation of team rules, and freshman guard Caroline Williams is recovering from surgery to repair a meniscal tear in her left knee.

Benningfield opened up with the hot hand for the Commodores. In the first three minutes of the game, she scored 10 of the Commodores' first 12 points. By the end of the first half, she'd racked up a total of 20 points, hitting 10 of her 13 shots from the field.

But the Premiere Players weren't just standing by to watch Benningfield's offensive display. The score remained close all through the first half, with 11 lead changes and five ties. The visitors briefly held an 8-point lead half way through the half. But Vanderbilt reclaimed the lead a few minutes later on freshman Carla Thomas' first points in a Commodore uniform, seconds after she entered the game for the first time.

For the remainder of the half, the teams battled neck-and-neck, with the Commodores taking a very slim lead at 41-39 into the locker room.

The second half continued in the same vein, with the two teams essentially trading baskets. But then the Premiere Players threw some fullcourt pressure at Vanderbilt's young backcourt. Since the Commodores had not yet worked on press-breakers in practice, the tactic was successful, forcing turnovers and fouls, which resulted in an 11-point lead at 67-56 at the 9:12 mark.

Coach Balcomb had seen enough and called a timeout to change the tempo. After the timeout, the Commodores came out aggressively, both offensively and defensively. In less than a minute, both Benningfield and Hager sank 3-pointers to cut the lead to five points at 67-62. Another 3-pointer from Hager cut the lead to only two points at 67-65. And then freshman Katie Antony grabbed a crucial steal. She missed the fast break opportunity, but Thomas grabbed the rebound and put it back to tie the score at 67-67 all.

But the Commodores' run didn't stop there. Thomas scored again on a fast break, then hit a free throw, and Hager sank another 3-pointers to finish the 17-0 Vanderbilt run.

From there on, the Commodores for the most part held their ground, but weren't able to pull away further. The Premiere Players cut the lead to 3 points on several times, but for most of the rest of the half, Vanderbilt's lead stayed between 5 and 8 points. In the last minute of the game, the Premiere Players sent Vandy's freshmen to the free throw line repeatedly, where they sank 8 of 10 from their shots. A 3-pointer by Mauri Horton at the end of the game cut the final margin to three points at 98-95.

Vanderbilt was led in scoring by Jenni Benningfield with 29 points, followed by Hillary Hager with 18, Carla Thomas with 13, Dee Davis with 11, and Ashley Earley with 10. Benningfield hit 13 of 16 shots from the field, while Hager was 6 of 8 from 3-point range. Hager was leading rebounder with 15, followed by Benningfield and Earley with 7 each. Davis dished out 12 assists, while Earley and Benningfield each had 4.

The Premiere Players were led in scoring by Mauri Horton, formerly of Rutgers University, with 28 points. Florida alums Tonya Washington and Brandi McCain added 22 and 19 points respectively.

For the game, the Commodores shot 54.4% (42.9% from 3-pt range) from the field compared to 48.6% (44% from 3-pt range) for the Premiere Players. Vanderbilt won the battle of the boards, 42-39, and turned the ball over 21 times compared to 19 for the visitors.

Vanderbilt's next exhibition game is Monday, Nov. 17 vs. an Athletes in Action. Admission is free. The Commodores open the regular season Nov. 21 in Burlington, Vt., in the Banknorth Classic.

Then there were six. Freshman forward Rachel Brockman has left the team for personal and family reasons. Brockman, who was one the class of seven freshmen, will complete the semester at Vanderbilt, then will transfer to another college.


Coach Balcomb: I think the big thing tonight is that we just wanted to get our feet wet. We just wanted to get everybody in, and I think it gave us a lot of things to work on in game situations. I thought it was a lot of things that obviously we can do better, but I was really pleased with their overall effort, especially our execution on offense. I think we did a really nice job and shared the ball and were very effective at some of the things we've taught. We just need some more time to teach some other things that we weren't prepared for that they did.

The Press: Like what?

Coach Balcomb: We hadn't even put in a press breaker. There's only so much we can do and put in. They played some 3-2. W had our 2-3 zone offense in. In our 3-2 we just put in the other day, so that was a little shakier when they went 3-2. We've worked so much on man and teaching a new system to a lot of freshmen so those are the kinds of things that we didn't have in. Our players did a nice job in game executing what we tried to do, throwing the bomb to Carla, things we drew up for them, on the fly they did a great job with.

The Press: For a while were you concerned that anybody was going to score besides Jenni?

Coach Balcomb: As a coach I like to spread out the wealth and was a little nervous when I saw the halftime stats with her having 20 points of our 40. That was a concern. As a coach, that's something you don't want. You want all five people to be tough to guard. But I think the big think the big thing was we were getting the ball inside easily to her and they did not double down on her. So we talked about the fact that probably in the second half they would double down on her, but they were just letting her go one-on-one in the post, and then she stepped out a couple of times in our offense and shot the three very well also, so she just really had a hot hand. I think in the second half Hillary may have taken over that spot. She lit it up in the second half, which was nice to see.

The Press: All in all, did you get what you expected form Dee, Carla, Katie?

Coach Balcomb: Yeah, I was really pleased. If you look at our stats, we shot the ball 54% from the field, which is very good, but we turned the ball over 21 times and that's poor. But that's what I expected with a lot of freshmen playing a lot of minutes, running new offenses, their first college game. We pretty much either turned it over or scored. I kind of did expect that, yeah.

The Press: Coach, with about 9 minutes left, they took an 11-point lead, and you called a timeout. After that, Vandy went on a 14-0 run to take the lead. What did you talk about during that timeout?

Coach Balcomb: It was nothing I said. I just think they had created a tempo. They got real aggressive, and we got timid, and I saw that they had the tempo. So we called a timeout to change the tempo and to get our players to be more aggressive and to push the ball again. They had gone zone, and we weren't pushing it, we weren't running. We want to create tempo all the time, and we want to push the envelope, and we weren't doing that any more. We were being very passive, and that's what we talked about.

The Press: What things would you be alarmed in defensively in this game?

Coach Balcomb: Transition defense was really poor in the first half. We tried to do a better job-- they wanted to be in the open court the whole time. Any time we got them to the point where they had to play half court offense we usually got a stop. But we didn't do a good job of forcing them to slow down and get them in a halfcourt offense. Also, our zone, we played some matchup, and actually did not not play our matchup very well. We need to work more on our matchup zone. They hit a lot of wide open shots, and we weren't aggressive enough so we played a lot of man to man and actually our man to man was better. I think we're going to be a much better man-to-man-- So from what I saw, to be honest with you, you hate to give up 95 points, but I saw some positives in the fact of improvement from last year. Our man defense will be better than it was. That's what I think.

The Press: Does 15 rebounds froma guard shock you?

Coach Balcomb: Is that what Hillary had? No, it doesn't shock me when it's Hillary Hager. I'll be honest with you. She's such a hard worker and does all the little things. What shocks me is that she's not that tall and she can't jump. (Laughter.) She's just really smart. She's a very smart girl,. and she knows where the ball is coming off, and she plays all the percentages and she works hard. So When you put hard work with smart work, you're not surprised.

The Press: Is Abi's suspension indefinite?

Coach Balcomb: Yes, right now. All I can tell you is it's indefinite.

The Press: Is she suspended from practice?

Coach Balcomb: She will practice.

The Press: Did you start more freshmen (inaudible).

Coach Balcomb: You noticed that. No, it's expected right now. It's their first game. I was going to throw them in and have them play a lot anyway. I think the toughest part was having to play Hillary Hager so many minutes. I think that hurts more than anything. We were hoping not to have to wear her out and have her on the floor so much, so we're really -- I want to play as many freshmen as I can, and maybe that will give the opportunity to get to where they're slowed down a little bit. They're just going really fast. They don't even see the defense. They're making the next pass in the offense, and they just need to slow down, and that's going to take some game experience.

The Press: Did you basically start Katie Antony in Abi's place?

Coach Balcomb: Yes.

The Press: Is this the kind of score that Vanderbilt . . . (inaudible).

Coach Balcomb: Yeah, if you look back at what we used to do at Xavier, what I've talked about is this team is going to look more like the philosophy and the style that I like to play, and we played a lot of games that are in this scoring range. The big thing is that there are so many possessions if we push the ball and if we're up-tempo as much as we want to be, there's going to be a lot of-- even if you play good defensively, you're going to give up a lot of points because there are going to be so many possessions. So I'm not happy with our defense, but I'm happy with the tempo and the things I saw philosophy-wise that we're trying to do better than we did last year.

The Press: Looking at Dee Davis, she had a double double but gave up seven turnovers, six in the second half. As a freshmen do you think the main factor there was being her first game and the pressure?

Coach Balcomb: Yeah, I think Dee did a great job tonight. I don't think it's pressure so much as wanting to make the right pass that we're expecting her to make in the offense, and it's all new. We coach every pass, we tell them every pass to make at what time, where, when, how and why. And that's a lot to learn in a couple of weeks of practice and then be able to do that. So she's just thinking too much right now. She's not just playing, and when we got her in situations up-tempo, some of the passes that you did see that she made in transition, she was just playing at that point. She's going to be a great point guard, but you can't expect her-- she's going to be inconsistent for a while because she's trying to throw the passes that we're teaching at the right times, and she's just over-thinking.

Coach Balcomb left the room, and senior forward Jenni Benningfield, senior guard Hillary Hager, and freshman point guard Dee Davis took their turn on stage. First, Jenni made some opening comments about the game.

Jenni: I definitely think that this game was a good learning experience for us. It really taught us what we need to work on and focus on as a team. We had our good points and our bad points in the game, but I think the most impressive thing is that we were down by 11 at one point, and we didn't give up. I think that's a good sign, especially for being the first game of the season, that we're not going to give up. And we kept our composure, and we pulled it through. So it was definitely a confidence booster for us as well.

The Press: Jenni, you had 20 of the 41 points in the first half. Did you wonder if your teammates were going to help out scoring?

Jenni: No, they're the ones who gave me the ball. They did the things that they needed to do, and I got open. I wouldn't have gotten 20 points without them passing and doing the little things to get open. No, it's not about that. It's not about scoring. It's about working as a team, and I wasn't worried about that. I knew we're all going-- whatever that might be.-- whoever has it-- it may be somebody scoring 40 or 50 points one game. It doesn't matter. It's about what's working. And at the time in the first half, it was working that I was getting the ball in low. The defense changed it around a little bit. Hillary stepped up and hit some big shots, and Dee was getting the ball, and it just worked out good.

The Press: Dee, evaluate your first outing. 12 assists, 7 turnovers.

Dee: I'm going to improve on that the next game. A few times I was trying force the ball to my teammates, but I just know I have to get them open for a better shot and just work on it even more. I figure that I had quite a few assists, but the turnovers I knew. I was struggling a little bit with those, but they will decrease the next game.

The Press: Did it take the better part of the first half into the second half for you to find a rhythm shooting the ball?

Hillary: Yeah, it kind of seemed like that. But in the second half I was open, and they got me the ball, and I shot and scored. It did take a little while. I wasn't really feeling anything in the first half.

The Press: Was there a little bit of trying to implement the new shooting stroke you've been working on in a game atmosphere?

Hillary: Yeah, it might have been that and just, I don't know, trying to run the offense because they were running zone, man, trying to feel that out a little bit.

The Press: There was a point in the second half when you were down about 11 points and coach called a timeout. What happened after that timeout?

Hillary: I think we got more aggressive on defense because we weren't getting any kind of stops on defense, especially transition defense. They scored 95 points. You're not going win many when the other team's scoring 95 points. But I think we got more aggressive, and Katie got a steal, and that just kind of set things up.

Jenni: Defense led to the offense.

Hillary: Yeah.

Jenni: Yeah.

The Press: Out of that timeout you hit a couple of three's and Jenni hit one. Were you specifically looking for three's?

Hillary: Not specifically a three. That's just what was there because they were playing a zone. And I think we realized that we were down 11, we need to start scoring, we need to start picking it up. But I don't think we were specifically looking for three's.

Jenni: I think Coach with that timeout said to really use the high post. It was just kind of a read because I popped up to the three because the two guards were low, so it was almost like a read because we wanted to see how they would react to a high post; if they come at us, that leaves Hillary and another guard on both wings for an open shot, and that happened I think on the next play, so it was almost a read and kind of spacing the defense out a little bit.

The Press: . . . 15 rebounds. . . (inaudible, laughter)

Hillary: Not specifically. I know that's one of my roles. I rebounded a little bit last year, and I was just going after the ball, I guess.

The Press: How would you compare this team to SEC teams you've played over the past few years?

Jenni: Well, in the locker room we were talking about India Lewis from Arkansas, obviously from an SEC school, and Brandi McCain from Florida, both guards. We were trying to explain to Dee that they got away with some shoves, but that's what it's all about. That's SEC play. People are going to be in your shorts every possession, every time you have the ball. It's going to be physical. I think as far as those players who have played in the SEC, it was good for Dee and other guards to really realize that we have a long way to get better, but that's what the SEC's about. We've explalned it to them, but for them to understand, it's going to take experiencing it, and I think tonight was the first step for that.

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Lead photo of Jenni Benningfield courtesy Vanderbilt Athletics. Photos of #42 Jenni Benningfield, #50 Carla Thomas, #10 Dee Davis, #4 Katie Antony, and #24 Hillary Hager by Micah Miller for Click on thumbnails to view a larger image. Top Stories