As it turned out, the anticipated matchup between Louisville Head Coach Tom Collen, who had a one-day tenure as Vanderbilt's coach, and VU Head Coach Melanie Balcomb, hired after Collen's resignation, needed no additional buildup. The game was a nail-biter from start to finish, with neither team ever holding a double-digit lead at any point.
Balcomb's Commodores improved to 4-0 on the season, while Louisville fell to 2-3.
The Commodores took an early 9-7 lead, fueled by 7 points from Benningfield, including the first of her three 3-pointers in the game. But Louisville slowly began to build a lead. The Cardinals' lead had reached 4 points at 17-13 when a 3-pointer from freshman point guard Dee Davis cut the deficit back to one point at 17-16 with 13:03 left in the half.
Over the next five minutes, Louisville went on a 9-1 run to take a 9-point lead at 26-17. Then, with a lineup that featured freshmen Katie Antony, Cherish Stringfield and Carla Thomas, along with seniors Hillary Hager and Benningfield, the Commodores went on a run of their own and tied the game at 26-26 on Benningfield's second 3-pointer of the game with 4:38 left in the half. A 3-pointer by Stringfield then gave Vanderbilt a 29-26 lead.
For the rest of the half, the teams traded baskets, and the Commodores took a slim 33-31 lead into the locker room at halftime.
The first ten minutes of the second half were a seesaw battle, which saw three ties and five lead changes. With 10:34 left, the game was tied at 48-48. The Cardinals appeared ready to put the game away with 8:43 left, when they took a 6-point at 56-50 lead on a 3-pointer by Kim Graham.
Vanderbilt cut the lead back to just one when Benningfield grabbed the rebound of her own missed shot and put it back in. On Louisville's possession Ashley Earley made a steal, and Antony got the ball to Hager for a 3-pointer.
The Commodores couldn't quite close the gap; with 3:52 left in the game, Louisville held a 5-point lead at 60-55. But once again, Vanderbilt came back. Another 3-pointer from Hager brought the Commodores within 2 at 62-60. After a Louisville score, Benningfield got a basket and the foul to put the score at 64-62. When she missed the free throw, Earley grabbed the rebound.
But Vanderbilt couldn't capitalize, as Hager missed a 3-pointer, and Kim Graham snagged the rebound for Louisville with 1:23 left. Deep into the shot clock, Louisville's Sara Nord missed a 3-pointer. Louisville rebounded with 0:49 left and called time out.
The Cardinals ran 25 seconds off the clock, then Graham was whistled for an offensive foul with 0:17 left. Balcomb called timeout to set up a play which would tie the score. The Commodores executed it perfectly, with Hager setting the screen, and Earley making the pass to Benningfield in the low post. Benningfield sank the basket, tying the game with 0:04 left. Louisville missed a desperation shot as time expired, and the game headed into overtime with the teams tied 64-64.
To start the overtime period, freshman point guard Dee Davis hit the front end of a 1-and-1, but missed the second. A couple of free throws and a layup by Benningfield gave the Commodores at 5-point lead at 69-64 with 1:28 left.
But two Louisville baskets cut the lead to a single point at 69-68 with 0:25 left. With Davis handling the ball the Cardinals couldn't force a turnover, so they sent Davis to the line, where she sank both free throws. Louisville shot an airball with 0:03 left and again had to foul; Hager's free throws sealed the 73-68 victory for Vanderbilt.
Vanderbilt shot 43.9% (41.7% from 3-point range) from the field and 72.2% from the line. Louisville shot 50% (46.7% from 3-point range) and 77.8% from the line. The Cardinals out-rebounded the Commodores 35-28. Vanderbilt had fewer turnovers, with only 16 compared to 24 for Louisville.
Benningfield led all scorers with 34 points, followed by Hillary Hager with 17 (including five 3-pointers) and Ashley Earley with 9. Earley was leading rebounder with 9, followed by Benningfield with 8. Katie Antony dished out 6 assists, while Davis and Hager both had 4.
Benningfield was named Most Valuable Player for the tournament. She was joined on the All-Tournament team by her teammate Hillary Hager, Louisville's Sara Nord and Jazz Covington, Princeton's Katy Digovich, and Samford's Alex Munday.
Next action for the Commodores is Thursday night, when they host New Orleans in a 7 p.m. CT game in Memorial Gym.
POST GAME COMMENTS:
Coach Balcomb: There are a lot of things we still need to work on, and a lot of things that obviously with a young team we're going to get better at, but I think the biggest positive is being able to win close games again and being able to execute in close games down the stretch. Right before regulation, I think we stepped up. We did something different on defense that I asked them in the huddle to do, and we got a stop and executed the defense that I asked them to that they hadn't done all game, and then we came down ran a quick hitter that we hadn't even run in a game yet, and executed that and scored. So I was really proud of when we needed to execute, how well they executed and under pressure and being so young.
The Press: What was the play you set up at the end of regulation?
Coach Balcomb: It was just a quick hitter that we ran last year, but we hadn't run it yet this year. So you had people out there that I was worried if they would even remember it. We just put it in practice two days ago right before the tournament in case we needed it. I wanted to make sure that the freshmen that were on the floor knew it, so I was just a little nervous about that, but we ran it perfectly.
The Press: Could you talk a little bit about Hillary's and Ashley's efforts defensively?
Coach Balcomb: Ashley Earley, I just think the world of her defense and her aggressiveness and her rebounding ability, and I think she kind of hit all game, then at the end of the game when we needed her, she really stepped up. She took a big charge. She had three steals on the wing, and she's just very aggressive and strong and needed to do that. Hillary-- I think she is really starting to understand the defenses and was understanding the personnel better than the freshmen and really knew who to play where and why, and she was just playing smart.
The Press: In the first half, it looked you got into a span where you were settling for quick shots on the perimeter... was that something they were doing, collapsing on ya'll inside?
Coach Balcomb: They were leaving us open outside, yeah. I told them at halftime we were falling into what they wanted. They were pressing us so we couldn't run and have transition baskets, and then they were letting us shoot from the outside so we couldn't go inside on them. And what happened was-- we do have confidence shooting the ball, so we were not being patient at all, we were shooting off one or two passes, and I talked to them at halftime about the fact that we could get better shots than we were taking. It was almost like we were too open, so we were just taking them. As a coach, I let everybody shoot it; if they work on it and they can shoot it, I give everybody the green light, so it's hard to pull them off when they're that open. But I think we were falling into the trap of what they wanted, and we talked about that at halftime and tried to be more patient and get better shots, not just the first shot, but better shots.
The Press: Katie and Dee played equal minutes for the game, but most of the second half of the second half, Katie played, then you put Dee in with about two minutes left. Could you talk about the factors that enter into the decision of who plays when?
Coach Balcomb: Well, right now they're very young and we're only three games in, so a lot of it's going to be who's playing well. We had made our only run in the first half with Katie at the point, so I looked to run Katie more at the point in the second half because that's when we made our run offensively. Then I put Dee in at the very end because Dee down the stretch in all our close games that we've had has made free throws, and I knew free throws were going to be very important down the stretch, so I wanted to have her in for that free throw pressure shooting that she had.
I think Katie is getting better all the time at the point, too. She's had to learn three positions, so it's a little tougher for her. And with Abi out,it makes everything tougher for the guards time-wise and how many positions they have to know and do.
The Press: Covington didn't score in the last 10 minutes of regulation and into the final minute of the overtime. Did you do something different against her?
Coach Balcomb: At the end of the game what we did is we switched defenses and went to a box and one on Nord. They had scored 7 possessions straight, so we went to a box and one and face-guarded Nord with Cherish, and it threw them off. They scored one time out of their next seven possessions and just weren't in their rhythm any more, and I really think that was a big difference in the game. We played it and stuck with it until the last possession.
The Press: It looks like there are some easy shots being missed. Do you think that's accurate, and if so, what do you think the reason is?
Coach Balcomb: Yeah, I think it's early on, and people are trying to figure out their roles and people are under pressure for having added roles. People have pressure just being freshmen. So I think for a while we are going to miss easy baskets, and I think what's good is we are getting easy baskets. I'm not that frustrated about offense as people think we are, because we are executing and getting shots; we're just not making them. We're making them in practice every day, so I think we just need to slow down and take our time and understand our roles, and I think we'll be fine.
Coach Balcomb left and senior captains Jenni Benningfield and Hillary Hager took their places at the table to answer questions.
The Press: Jenni, did it feel good to have a good game against Louisville?
Jenni: Hey, I'm not complaining. I think I took this game kind of personal. For one, being from Louisville, and two, losing to Louisvlle last year, and three, for the whole team and the coaching staff. I know a lot of people were looking at the whole situation with the coaches, but the thing that I'm really excited about is that everybody stayed focused and realized how big of a game this really was and stuck it out. Our whole team really came together and pulled out when we needed to pull out, and we got the W, so there's no complaints with that.
The Press: Jenni, at the game in Vermont, you missed two free throws at the end of regulation that would have won the game, and in this game at the end of regulation they set up the play and you hit the shot. How does that feel?
Jenni: With that situation, you learn from it, but also you want the ball in that situation. You want to have that scenario again. I was hoping to get the ball. I had confidence in anybody on our team who was out there if they got the ball, but Hillary set an awesome screen on my player, and Ashley threw an awesome pass, and I got the ball in the situation, and I made it this time. It feels good and gives me a lot of confidence going into another situation, but again, I want that situation again.
The Press: Hillary, the intensity level of you personally and also the team definitely increased throughout the second half. Was that just because it was getting towards crunch time or what?
Hillary: Yeah, I think our team as a whole can take it to another level, and when we realized that, hey, there are three minutes left, and we're down by five, I think we had the ability to step it up and to execute on our offense well and score and then get stops on the other end. So, yeah, a sense of urgency, for sure.
The Press: Jenni, these holiday tournament games tend to be a little bit on the cream puff side especially when it comes to this tournament in recent years, is it kind of perversely a good thing to get a tough scrappy competitive Louisville team to play against?
Jenni: Oh yeah. All the teams that came to this tournament were different in their own way. Louisville's an awesome ball club. You've got to give them a lot of credit. It was an awesome game tonight. But having to play against a team like Louisville this early, again, in the situation that we had going into overtime and pulling out again and missing a couple of players, for us, whatever a young team as we are, we're pulling through these type of scenarios right now early in the season. That's gaining more confidence and the slogan we use is "getting better every day", and playing a good team like that is only going to make us better. It was exciting. And playing with Samford last night, they brought something different, and I think playing Louisville tonight really took our play to another level tonight.
The Press: Hillary, you were on the floor for 45 minutes tonight. Can you talk about that?
Hillary: Yeah, at times I guess fatigue does kick in, but then at the same time it doesn't, especially in a close game like that when you go into overtime, you have an extra adrenaline kick. I want to play, I want to be out there, obviously, and you don't even think about it. It doesn't really enter my mind, just getting stops on defense, trying to be intense the whole time.
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