Ramsey, who had been suspended "indefinitely" for a violation of team rules since Nov. 11, had been practicing with the team throughout the and attending games in street clothes. But she had not played a single minute in any game this year until she entered the game five minutes into the first half. She remained in for most of the rest of the game.
Early on, the Commodores looked like a team that had just returned from a holiday layoff. The Rams scored the first basket of the game and inched their way to a 17-6 lead midway through the first half, as Vanderbilt committed ten turnovers in the first ten minutes of play.
After a timeout for a "reality check" provided by Head Coach Melanie Balcomb, the Commodores turned things around. Two quick 3-point plays, an old-fashioned 3-play by Benningfield, and Ramsey's first 3-pointer of the season cut the Rams' lead to five. Benningfield scored the game's next six points to give the Commodores their first lead at 18-17.
The lead seesawed back and forth until the Commodores took the lead for good at 25-23 on a putback shot by Benningfield. A 3-pointer by Hillary Hager with 0:25 left stretched Vandy's lead to 35-26 going into halftime.
The Commodores pounced on Rhode Island in the first five minutes of the second half and built a 47-30 lead. On several occasions the Rams assembled little runs to trim the lead to single digits; but while the Commodores may have bent, they didn't break. Rhode Island closed within 8 points with 1:20 left, but made free throws by Ashley Earley and Ramsey sealed the win for Vanderbilt, with the final score of 74-61.
Hillary Hager was third on the team in scoring with 11. Benningfield's 13 rebounds, a team high, gave her her second consecutive double-double. Ashley Earley and Katie Antony had 5 assists each. Peta Keen led URI in scoring with 23 points.
Vanderbilt shot 53.5% from the field (47.1% from 3-point range), the fifth game in a row in which the Commodores have shot better than 50%, while holding the Rams to 36.1%. The Commodores narrowly outrebounded URI 36-35, but had more turnovers with 25 to 21 for the Rams.
Vanderbilt improved to 10-0 for the season, their best start in eight years, and earned the right to face host Miami, who defeated Toledo 68-57 in the nightcap, in the championship game at 6 p.m. Monday.
There wasn't a press conference after the game, but VandyMania talked with Jenni Benningfield and Abi Ramsey, then with Head Coach Melanie Balcomb after the game.
VM: Abi, you're back. First game of the year-- can you talk about how it felt?
Abi: It was great. It felt great. Before the game, I wasn't as anxious as I thought I was going to be like how I'd been earlier in the year, kind of afraid I was going to get out there and lose my mind because I had so many things to try to get prepared for the game. But it was great. That's all I've got to say. Just getting the first one over with I think was the biggest thing with me.
VM: Jenni, it must be nice having Abi back on the court.
Jenni: Abi played one helluva game tonight. She really came out and just was ready to show everybody what's up, (Abi laughs) to show what she can do. It was awesome to see her on the floor. It was really awesome to see her play like she did because she's been practicing like that and working hard and pushing everybody else. So it's awesome to see her out on the floor doing that against another team.
VM: In the first half, you fell behind 17-6, and then went on a 12-0 run. What happened that changed the game?
Abi: I think Coach had to call a time out.
Jenni: Yeah, that's the first time in nine games that coach has had to call time out to give us a reality check, because our effort wasn't there. She shouldn't have to coach effort. That's one thing coaches shouldn't ever have to do, is coach effort towards players. We should be getting every loose ball and hustling, and they were doing that against us. That's how we got down. We didn't come out with any energy or any communication. We weren't talking, so everything was just not there basically until the ten minute in the first half when we made a run.
VM: Any other keys to the game?
Abi: I think we kind of kept our game when they tried to pressure us. We knew going in that they'd throw a press at us, and it'd would just be a dogfight. I think we did a really good job of handling it.
Abi and Jenni headed to the showers, and VandyMania talked with Head Coach Melanie Balcomb.
VM: You fell behind early in the first half and then came back. What happened to turn things around?
Coach Balcomb: Well, I think we weren't ready to play and came out very flat on offense and on defense, and they were very fired up and ready to play. I think it took us to get down before we got nervous and started checking out and being more physical. They were more physical than us, ripping the ball out of our hands. We were flat, and I think once they got that big lead, it scared us, and we got down to business.
VM: Abi Ramsey played her first game of the year. She didn't look very rusty.
Coach Balcomb: No, it wasn't at all, but that's because Abi has worked hard every day. She's earned it. She worked so hard to get back, and she hasn't missed a beat. She practices every day like it's a game. She made that decision, she took the discipline, and she wanted really to come back strong for the team. She wasn't nervous; she just didn't want to let the team down again. She wanted to play well. And she's earned it. That's why she played very confident.
VM: She looks improved from last year.
Coach Balcomb: Much improved. She's starting to really read the game and understand it. You watch her on offense, and everybody will talk about the 3's, but actually she helps us better defensively than you'll ever know because she also talks and communicates very well on the floor.