Still unbeaten: Commodores bounce Billikens, 71-56

SAINT LOUIS, Mo.-- Vanderbilt took its unblemished record on the road Sunday vs. St. Louis University, and survived, 71-56. Ashley Earley's 22 points and Jenni Benningfield's 13 rebounds helped push the Commodores to 9-0. "I think we've taken defense to heart since the beginning of the season, and we keep getting better at it," said Head Coach Melanie Balcomb.

SAINT LOUIS, Mo.-- According to legend, good luck comes to those who rub the belly of the billiken, so maybe these Vanderbilt fans can take some credit for the Commodores' 71-56 victory over Saint Louis University Sunday afternoon. But a solid defensive effort by Vanderbilt, their dominance in the paint, and their ability to rise above adversity probably had something to do with it, too.

Vanderbilt was forced to play the game without freshman point guard Dee Davis, who has started every game this season, and freshman forward Jenn Hall. Davis was sidelined with a stress reaction, and Hall is still recovering from a concussion she suffered in practice earlier in the week. In addition, junior guard Abi Ramsey remained on indefinite suspension.

In Davis' place, freshman guard Katie Antony played 35 minutes at the point, finishing with 12 assists and 8 points. In Hall's absence, freshman post Carla Thomas was the primary sub for the post players and contributed nine points and five rebounds in her 13 minutes of play.

In the post, junior forward Ashley Earley led all scorers with 22 points and pulled down 9 boards. Senior forward Jenni Benningfield notched her first double-double of the season with 17 points (including 7-of-7 from the free throw line) and 13 rebounds. By contrast, the SLU senior post combo of Angie Lewis and Stephanie Soloman were held to a combined 21 points and 7 rebounds. Vandy outscored SLU 48-20 in the paint.

Defensively, the Commodores held the Billikens to just 32.8% shooting from the field and allowed only one 3-pointer. Senior guard Kirsti Holloway, who began the game shooting 45% from 3-point range and averaging 12.7 points per game, only made one of 15 attempts from the field, six of those from behind the arc.

Saint Louis never led in the game, nor were there any ties. Vanderbilt opened the scoring when Benningfield grabbed the offensive board on a miss by Hillary Hager, sank the basket, was fouled and sank the free throw. After a SLU basket, another layup from Benningfield, an offensive rebound and putback by Earley and a 3-pointer from Hager gave Vanderbilt an early 10-2 lead.

Seven minutes later, Vanderbilt still held an 8-point lead at 21-13 and gradually increased it, thanks in part to 7 points from Thomas. Vanderbilt finished the half with a flourish, as Antony drew a charge, then Earley scored on a long inbounds pass in the final seconds to give the Commodores a 39-24 halftime lead.

In the first two minutes of the second half, a 7-0 all-Ashley Earley run gave the Commodores a 22-point lead at 46-24, their biggest lead of the game. The lead hovered around 20 points for the next six minutes.

Just it looked as if the game was well in hand, Holloway sank a 3-pointer, quickly followed by a basket from Yaniq Javois to cut the lead to 16, and a couple of minutes later, a pair of free throws from Lewis cut the lead to 14.

As it turned out, however, that was a close as St. Louis would get the rest of the game. In the final minutes, Coach Melanie Balcomb cleared the bench, and every player who was available to play got into the game. When the final buzzer sounded, the Commodores had won by the score of 71-56.

Vanderbilt was led in scoring by Ashley Earley with 22 points on 10-of-14 shooting from the field, followed by Jenni Benningfield with 17, Carla Thomas with 9, and Katie Antony with 8. Benningfield was leading rebounder with 13, followed by Earley with 9 and Thomas with 5. Antony dished out 12 assists, and Earley, Benningfield and Hillary Hager added 3 each.

Angie Lewis led Saint Louis in scoring with 14 points. No other Billiken scored in double figures. Lakrisha Brown was leading rebounder with 9.

The Commodores shot 52.8% from the field, their fourth consecutive game above 50%, while holding Saint Louis to 32.8%. Rebounds were exactly equal at 35 each, and turnovers were close with 17 for Vanderbilt and 16 for Saint Louis. The biggest statistical difference was in the paint, where Vandy out-scored the Billikens 48-20.

The Commodores (9-0) will enjoy several days off for the Christmas holidays before returning to campus Dec. 26 to prepare for the Gatorade Holiday Classic in Miami next weekend. Vanderbilt will meet Rhode Island in the opening round on Sunday, while host Miami plays Toledo. The consolation and championship games will be held on Sunday.

After the game, VandyMania talked with Vanderbilt Head Coach Melanie Balcomb, then with senior forward Jenni Benningfield and junior forward Ashley Earley.

VM: Coach, could you make some general comments about the game?

Coach Balcomb: I think the nicest thing to see was that we had some adversity, we had Jenn Hall out and Dee Davis out, and it took other players like Katie [Antony] to step up at the point, and Cherish [Stringfield] and Caroline [Williams] to step up at the guard, and Carla [Thomas] stepped up playing more minutes, and Nicole. It's nice to see players able to step up when we're not at full go.

VM: Can you talk about the defensive effort?

Coach Balcomb: I think we've taken defense to heart since the beginning of the season, and we keep getting better at it, and I think it's obvious by the ability to shut down the people that we want to shut down and take away the things that we're trying to take away, and we keep getting better at it.

VM: What were you trying to take away this game?

Coach Balcomb: Their inside game. They were dominated inside, and then they had one shooter outside. They had the big three, kind of like we have right now, and we're very similar in those aspects. And we held their shooter to 1-for-15, and we definitely stopped their inside game. We're shutting down and taking away things, which we need to do.

VM: Any individual performances for your team which stand out?

Coach Balcomb: Katie Antony is just playing really, really well right now. She's starting to read things on offense and playing more than one position. She just reads the game really well, and I think it's so nice that she's so versatile for our team.

Coach Balcomb left, then Jenni and Ashley talked with VandyMania for a few minutes.

VM: Tell me about your take on the game.

Jenni: We knew it was going to be a very big game, knowing Saint Louis is a very very good team and knowing that this is a hard place to play. We wanted to make sure that we were focused for the game, because I know everybody is excited about going home and having four days off to spend with the families. But I think everybody really took this game to heart, how important it was, and us being committed to the goals we have as a team. I think it was a very big game, and people really stepped up.

Ashley: I agree with Jenni. I think it was a big game. Being one of the games before Christmas, it proved how well we could focus when we had other things that we could be thinking about.

VM: You had both Dee and Jenn out today. Can you talk about how Katie and Carla stepped up?

Ashley: I think they responded really well. They did really well. Before the game Coach said that people needed to step up, be a team, because we have some players out, we aren't going to have as many subs, and I think they did that. And I think that's really positive going into the second half of our season, knowing we can step up like that.

Jenni: Oh yeah. It gives them confidence and more experience because they're playing a lot more now with that situation. But I think it also definitely gives the rest of the team confidence to know that they're willing to do what it takes to win for the team.

VM: So are y'all free as soon as you leave here today?

Jenni: Yep. A shower, and I'm out!

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