Ashley Earley's 19 points and 14 rebounds helped the No. 23 Commodores up their record to 11-1 in a game that stayed close up until the final three minutes. Both teams had cold shooting nights, but the Orangewomen were badly out-rebounded by Vandy, 47-26.
The game featured two dramatic subplots. First, junior guard Abi Ramsey played for the first time before the home fans in Memorial Gym this year. Ramsey, who was suspended for a violating team rules for the first nine games of the season, made a dramatic season home debut, scoring 17 points and snatching 3 steals.
Senior forward Jenni Benningfield did not start the game because of a very sore right foot, which has been hurting for a couple of days. X-rays prior to the game were inconclusive, and further tests will be done early next week. But she was cleared to play, and while the coaching staff hoped she wouldn't be needed, she wound up playing 25 minutes and notched her third double double of the season with 13 points and 11 rebounds.
"I just knew I was going to be ready, and whenever coach was going to tell, I was going to go in and do as much as I can," said Benningfield afterwards.
The Commodores got off to a shaky start, and for the third straight game fell behind early. Vanderbilt held an early 6-3 lead before a 13-0 Syracuse run, capped by Sarah Wegrzynowicz's 3-pointer as the shot clock expired, gave the Orangewomen a 16-6 lead. Unlike the game in Miami, the Syracuse run wasn't fueled by turnovers; but rather by shooting woes, as the Commodores missed five straight shots.
Head Coach inserted Benningfield into the game, and the Commodores cut the lead to six before she exited. But once again the Orangewomen stretched the lead to 10 points at 24-14 with 6:15 left in the half.
After a basket by Ramsey, Benningfield re-entered the game, and the Commodores began scoring from all over the court. Ramsey hit a 3-pointer, freshman point guard Cherish Stringfield scored on a fast break, and Ashley Earley scored on a couple of layups. After being down by 10 points at the 6-minute mark, Vanderbilt held Syracuse scoreless for the remainder of the half and took a 28-24 lead to the locker room at halftime.
As the second half began, it looked as though Vanderbilt might pull away when a couple of baskets by Ashley Earley extended the lead to eight. But a fast=break basket and a 3-pointer by Julie McBride stopped the momentum, and Syracuse regained the lead on another 3-pointer from McBride.
The teams battled tooth and nail over the next eight minutes, and neither team could gain a permanent advantage. With 3:40 left, the score was tied at 49-49.
Then the Vanderbilt veterans stepped up. Earley grabbed four critical rebounds. Benningfield scored a couple of baskets and also dished out two assists, one to Earley and one to a wide-open Stringfield who sank a 3-pointer. Then Ramsey sank the free throws that sealed the 61-52 win for the Commodores.
Freshman point guard Cherish Stringfield dished out 7 assists with only one turnover. Syracuse was led in scoring by Julie McBride with 22. No other Orangewoman scored in double figures. Chineze Nwagbo was leading rebounder with 8, and McBride had 5 assists.
Vanderbilt shot just 38% from the floor (35.7% from 3-point range), while Syracuse was little better with 39.7% (26.7% from 3-point range). Turnovers were similar with 14 for Vanderbilt and 13 for Syracuse.
Syracuse saw its record drop to 3-6. Next action for Vanderbilt is a Monday night matchup against Savannah State in Memorial Gym.
POST GAME COMMENTS
Vanderbilt Head Coach Melanie Balcomb made some opening comments, then answered questions from the press.
Coach Balcomb: I think the tough part was we got our best crowd all year, and we really struggled putting the ball in the basket. So we weren't that exciting. The game was exciting overall, but we didn't shoot the ball well. We got the shots we wanted. We went inside early like we wanted to, and we just couldn't put the ball in the ocean most of the game. I don't fault our effort. We executed, we played hard, and I think we just couldn't put the ball in the basket.
The Press: Coach, how close were you to not playing Jenni at all?
Coach Balcomb: If we didn't need her, I wouldn't have played her.
The Press: How serious is her foot?
Coach Balcomb: I have no idea. She's going to be evaluated early next week.
The Press: Did Rod indicate that she couldn't do any further damage to it by playing tonight?
Coach Balcomb: They just tell me whether she's cleared to play or not, and she was cleared to play, so I played her.
The Press: How about Dee? Is it still kind of cautionary with her?
Coach Balcomb: Yes, Dee's still very sore.
The Press: Can you talk about the things that Jenni brings to floor when she's out there that are missing when she's not out there?
Coach Balcomb: Just confidence, leadership-- she's been on the floor a long time, and the players are very confident with her out there. She's been there. It's experience that you can't in a close game replace with a freshman, I don't care how good that freshman is.
The Press: What did you see in tonight's games that were improvements from the pair of games in Miami?
Coach Balcomb: Our effort. Our overall effort was much better than it was in Miami. And even though we weren't making shots, we didn't get down. Our confidence was better. I think our attitude was better.
The Press: When you speak of missed shots and especially a lot of interior looks, do you think the team looking at Syracuse's lack of height and depth and thinking that they're going to have their way inside coming into the game and then for whatever reason that's throwing them off?
Coach Balcomb: No, I think after our Miami game, we weren't overlooking height, size, weight, seven players, nothing. We were not over-confident in going inside. We just thought that was somewhere we had an advantage and needed to go. They were very physical on us, and I thought they did a great job. I thought they were very well prepared, and I thought they did a great job.
The Press: Looking at them in the fact that they only brought seven and played six, is that something that you coach with that factor in mind? Is there anything you can do to try to take advantage of that fact?
Coach Balcomb: The only thing we tried to take advantage of was going inside. We just really wanted to take it at them knowing they didn't want to foul. We said "Don't overlook seven players; it only takes five to win." I've played six players many times, many years and won a lot of games. So that didn't mean anything. What it meant was we wanted to get them in foul trouble, so you want to take it inside. You want to pump fake, and you want to take it to the basket. And we were getting bodied and fading away, and not pump faking, and they didn't foul. They didn't foul much all night. I thought they did an excellent job. They did a very good job of double-teaming our posts and sagging off our guards.
The Press: Coach, can you talk about Abi finally getting her first home game under her belt?
Coach Balcomb: She was ready, just like she was on the rest. It was really nice to see her confidence. I tell you, she played incredible defense the first twenty minutes. I was just really impressed with her defense. She wanted to guard their best player, and at the same time, she just kept asking to get her the ball. That's how confident she is right now. She wanted the ball to shoot, and she wanted to defend, and she played both ends of the floor. And was a leader. She's a verbal leader for us also.
Coach Balcomb left, and Jenni, Ashley, and Abi entered the room and took their places at the table.
The Press: Jenni, it's been a while since you didn't start the game. How was it watching from where you were?
Jenni: I don't know... I really didn't even think about it. I knew everybody was going to step up tonight, and I don't worry about that. That's the farthest thing from my mind is if I'm starting or not. I'm just worried about playing Vanderbilt basketball. That's all I'm worried about, so it didn't even really cross my mind.
The Press: Did you expect to have to go in tonight, or were you thinking they could get by without you?
Jenni: I had no idea. I just knew I was going to be ready, and whenever coach was going to tell, I was going to go in and do as much as I can. That's all I could think about.
The Press: Jenni, could you tell us what happened and as much as you can about the state of your foot?
Jenni: It's just really sore. I'm going to get it looked at on Monday, so I'll probably know more.
The Press: Did it happen all at once?
Jenni: It happened a couple of days ago. We'll know more the early part of next week.
The Press: Abi, it was your first day playing back in Memorial. Can you talk about that?
Abi: Well, I thought I was going to be a little more prepared for it. As soon as I ran out and the fans started going off, I tried my hardest to hold back the tears. I didn't think I'd get that emotional, but it was completely different than playing on the road. There's something about this gym and the fans-- it was great. It was great to be home.
The Press: Ashley, it took a while for you guys to get on track, especially getting the ball in the basket int the first half. Can you talk about what was going on in those first ten minutes of the game?
Ashley: You know the ball's not going to go in every night. You can't stop shooting because of that. We just weren't making shots at the beginning. You just have to be persistent and just keep shooting, and we started making shots towards the end of the first half and towards the second half.
The Press: Does the notion that Syracuse is only bringing seven players out there make you guys--
Ashley: No, that doesn't even matter about the people on the bench. Only five people play at a time. I don't know how many people we played tonight, or how many people play a ton of minutes, but it doesn't matter. We don't even think about that.
The Press: Jenni, at the end of the game, there was a moment when Cherish was open, and you passed the ball to her and she sank the three. Can you talk about that?
Jenni: Obviously you try to get the ball to the open person, and today watching her in shootaround, she was nailing three's left and right. Even if she hadn't I was going to throw her the ball, she stepped up and made a really big shot. I think some of our freshmen have really picked up stepped up in big times, and that gives us a lot of confidence. She stepped up. She played big tonight. She really did.
The Press: Jenni, does a game like this take the bad taste of the Miami game out of your mouths?
Jenni: It helps, but we're always going to be upset that we lost that game, because no one wants to lose. But at the same time, today we played against a tough Syracuse team, but we didn't get down. We didn't freak out. We kept our composure and pulled out the win. We did a lot of things tonight that the coaches have tried to get us to do for 11 or 12 games now, and we started doing it tonight. So we took a step from the Miami game. We took a step from that. And that's all we can do, take a step each day, each game, and we're always going to look back at that Miami game and realize what we need to do to be a better basketball team and to not let that happen again.
The Press: What were some of the things that the coaches were trying to get you to do that you thought you did a better job of tonight?
Jenni: Using the whole court, I think. Getting everybody involved, but really just using every option that we have in our offense. I think a lot of times we focus on certain options, and we don't look at other options that we can use. I guess reading the defense more. There are so many things, it's hard to be more descriptive about it, but really just trying to read the defense and doing some of the things that-- they scouted us. They haven't seen us do some of the things we practice, so it's there. We've just got to do it. We've just got to be more coachable and do the things that they ask us to do.
Ashley: Make changes.
Jenni: Yeah, make changes. That's the whole thing since the Miami game. We've got to make a change for us to be better and not get a game like that like we did in Miami.
The Press: Ashley, with Jenni not starting and the prospect of her not playing, did that force you all to be more offensive-minded, to be maybe a little more balanced offensively?
Ashley: We're a team. And when one of your teammates is out, and they can't play, everybody knew that it was our time to step up. I don't think that one person was like "I need to shoot more tonight because Jenni's not in". We're a team, like she was talking about, in our offense we try look at every option, and I don't think anybody was trying to force or shoot more just because she wasn't playing. We just tried to go in and play harder and be more focused so that she didn't have to play 40 minutes tonight.
Top photo by Neil Brake, courtesy of Vanderbilt Athletics. Other photos by Whitney D. for VandyMania.com; click on thumbnails to view a larger image.