Dores win conference opener over Wildcats, 65-57

NASHVILLE-- Vanderbilt connected on 25-of-27 free throw attempts, including a perfect 20-of-20 from freshmen Carla Thomas, Dee Davis, Katie Antony, and Caroline Williams, as the Commodores fought to a 65-57 victory over Kentucky in the SEC opener for both teams Thursday at Memorial Gym.

NASHVILLE-- Vanderbilt connected on 25-of-27 free throw attempts, including a perfect 20-of-20 from freshmen Carla Thomas, Dee Davis, Katie Antony, and Caroline Williams, as the Commodores fought to a 65-57 victory over Kentucky in the SEC opener for both teams Thursday at Memorial Gym.

Vanderbilt improved to 13-1 overall and 1-0 in the SEC, while Kentucky fell to 8-6 overall and 0-1 in the SEC. Ashley Earley led the Vanderbilt attack with 16 points and 10 rebounds, her fifth double-double of the season.

Freshman center Carla Thomas also notched a double-double with 14 points and 10 rebounds. Freshman point guard Katie Antony added 14, including a perfect 3-of-3 from the field and 8-of-8 from the free-throw stripe.

Both teams struggled early offensively; the Wildcats missed their first six shots from the field. For the first 10 minutes of the game, both teams shot under 30% from the field, as they struggled to a 10-10 tie. Kentucky's leading scorer, SeSe Helm, picked up two quick fouls in the first four minutes of the game and spent the rest of the first half on the bench.

With 8:34 left in the first half, the score was still tied at 15. With junior guard Abi Ramsey and four freshmen on the floor, the Commodores reeled off a 9-0 run. First Ramsey sank a 3-pointer, then Antony, Caroline Wiliams, and Dee Davis each sank a pair of free throws to give Vanderbilt a 24-15 lead with 5:54 left in the first half.

As it turned out, the Commodores would hold the lead for the rest of the game, but the Wildcats kept the game interesting. Late in the first half, Kentucky's freshman point guard Angela Phillips sank a 3-pointer, then finished on a fast-break to cut Vandy's lead to 6 at halftime at 30-24.

In the second half, both teams struggled to find an offensively rhythm. Over the first eight minutes of the second half, Vanderbilt managed only one field goal and a pair of free throws, while Kentucky did little better with three field goals, putting the score at 34-30 with 11:53 left in the half.

Then two things happened. Senior captain Jenni Benningfield, who had been kept in reserve on the bench due to a stress reaction in her right foot, came into the game for the first time for a brief stint; and, Vanderbilt began to aggressively attack the basket.

As the Commodores, especially Antony, drove to the basket, they were repeatedly fouled by the Kentucky defenders and capitalized by sinking every free throw in the second half.

The Wildcats came within four points on a 3-pointer by Sara Potts with 7:30 left in the game, but then a 14-4 Vanderbilt run gave the Commodores their biggest lead of the night at 57-43 with 3:18 remaining.

Kentucky wasn't ready to throw in the towel, though. Phillips sank a 3-pointer, then Jenny Pfeiffer was fouled on a 3-point attempt and sank all three of the free throws to cut the lead to single digits.

Vanderbilt countered with layups from Earley and Antony, but then Pfeiffer was fouled again on a 3-point attempt and again sank the free throws. She sank another 3-pointer to cut the lead to at 63-57 with 0:14 left. But the Cats ran out of lives at that point, and a couple of Thomas free throws sealed the Vanderbilt win.

The Commodores shot 40.4% from the floor but were only 2-of-14 from behind the arc. Kentucky shot 31% from the field, including 30% from 3-point range.

Both teams were excellent from the free-throw line, with Vanderbilt shooting 92.6% and Kentucky shooting 91.7%; but Vanderbilt went to the line 27 times, Kentucky only 12. The Commodores out-rebounded the Wildcats 42-32, but had 20 turnovers to Kentucky's 16.

Vandy travels to Gainesville Sunday afternoon for a game against the Florida Gators.


Coach Balcomb: Free throws won the game. It's as simple as that. One of our goals was to go to the line more than them and try to shoot 20 free throws or more, and I think we shot 25-of-27. I think that was a big difference in the game. We attacked when they had pressure, and really that's the only place we were scoring, putting the ball on the floor and just going to the hole, and we tried to do that more in the second half. Defensively, I thought we played well until we let up some 3's in the very last couple of minutes of the game, and we need to work more on end-of-game situations.

The Press: Coach, I guess about th 7-1/2 mark of the first half you had Katie, Jenn, Caroline and Carla out there with Abi and you went from tied 15-15 to up 24-15 or maybe down two. Was that a conscious decision having those four freshmen out there at once?

Coach Balcomb: No, it was a conscious decision to sub early in the first half, get them out there and get their feet wet, making sure that if I needed them in the second half that they were out there early and had played, because I would never want to put that many freshmen out there in the second half without having played in the first half. So I really wanted to get them in early in the first half. I waited because it was a little closer, but then it was nice feeling to know that we didn't lose anything, in fact we gained something.

The Press: Coach, did you see Katie seem to grow in confidence as the game progressed?

Coach Balcomb: Hmm-hmm. (Nods.)Katie's extremely physical and strong, so she really stepped up her game and her confidence like you said as the game went on. She was looking to drive more. She got more aggressive, once she figured out that they couldn't guard her on the drive. She was taking it to the hole, and that's what we really needed. We needed somebody to take it all the way to the basket.

The Press: Coach, you've talked a lot about what you need to improve on before the SEC, and you don't have your top player and starting point guard and got away with a win tonight .

Coach Balcomb: It's good because it's been like that all season. We didn't have Abi and Caroline. Then we got them back, then we lost Jenni and Dee, and then we lost Jenni. We haven't had a full group of players like we've wanted from the start, and I think it's made us strong. I think it's made us gain a lot of confidence early on. So yes, we will definitely take this win, as beat up as we are, whatever you want to call it.

The Press: Coach, talk about your thought processes in putting Dee and Jenni in? What circumstances were you looking for?

Coach Balcomb: I didn't want to put Jenni in unless I really felt like we needed her leadership. She didn't even need to score. I just needed her on the floor to calm things down, and I think we did calm down when she went out there. I was hoping to play her as little as possible. Then Dee, I just wanted to get her in in the first half. She hasn't been practicing in a month, so I wanted to get her in and get her feet wet again in the first half, not in the second half when anything mattered down the stretch, and see how she did. So tomorrow we can see how her foot feels.

The Press: Of course, you talk about getting them in the first half so they'd be ready by the second half when it mattered, but when they were in there in the first half was when it mattered most. I think they only came within four once.

Coach Balcomb: With Dee, I just wanted to get her in the first half. It wasn't like I was going to use her again in the second half. I just wanted to get her into the game, period, and get her feet wet when it didn't matter. Jenni, I was saving till the very last minute and wasn't going to use at all, so there's a difference between the kids that were hurt and what I was trying to do with the freshmen, Caroline and Jenn Hall, who I told you we needed to get more minutes for, I wanted to get them into the first half figuring I'd need them in the second half also. So I didn't want to just throw them in in the second half in a big game, so there were really two different philosophies. I knew maybe I'd need Jenni down the stretch and was trying to save that.

The Press: In terms of defensive intensity from start to finish, do you think this was as good a game as you've had all year?

Coach Balcomb: I think our intensity defensively was good all game. We made some mental mistakes at the end, but they were mental, not physical. I thought our physical effort was very good.

The Press: Did you do anything special to SeSe to take her out of her game?

Coach Balcomb: We were looking to double her any time we could. We tried to play as much zone to front her as much as possible, and then on the catch, if she does catch it... (inaudible).. and have help, so we tried to keep the ball out of her hands as much as possible in the paint where she likes to be, and it seemed to work for us. And when she got the ball, you saw us double her and force her into some offensive fouls and some travels.

Coach Balcomb left the room, and senior guard Hillary Hager, junior forward Ashley Earley, and freshman center Carla Thomas then took a turn answering questions.

The Press: The freshmen were 20-of-20 from the free throw line. Can you talk about that?

Hillary: That's great, because, well, I wouldn't say that we'd been struggling at the free throw line, but we hadn't been--

Ashley: shooting real well--

Hillary: --yeah, shooting extremely well, and we stepped it up tonight. We ended up with 25-of-27.

Ashley: That was the difference in the game.

Hillary: Yep.

The Press: Either Ashley or Carla, can you talk about how different the game unfolded for you in the paint without SeSe Helm in there, as opposed to with her, as the game progressed?

Carla: I thought there was more doubling in the post without her in the game, but other than that, I don't think it was too different.

Ashley: She's pretty much their backbone. She's their best player, so the game was very different without her in there.

The Press: Hillary, it seemed like without Jenni out there you were a lot more vocal out there?

Hillary: Yeah, because Jenni's a very vocal person, as I'm sure you guys know and have seen, being the other captain and the other senior on the floor, I felt like I had to step up and talk a lot more, and that's what I wanted to do.

The Press: Carla, it was your first taste of SEC play. Can you talk about it?

Carla: I like it. I like the pressure situation, and every possession is important, every loose ball, everything is crucial. It makes it interesting, makes it fun.

The Press: Hillary, you all had 20 turnovers tonight and only 11 assists. How much does this team miss both Dee Davis and Jenni?

Hillary: We definitely miss them. Jenni's a really big part of our offense, and Dee's a great point guard, but I think part of that was that we were kind of uptight on offense and I think we were just throwing the ball like where we didn't really need to be throwing it. They pressured us a little bit more, but I think it was more us. We got that first SEC game out of the way. We're pretty young, but now we're all right. No more freshmen any more.

The Press: Would you say this game is a pretty good confidence builder?

Ashley: Like Hillary said, I think it was a good game just to get the first SEC game jitters out. We do have a lot of freshmen, and for a lot of them, playing in the SEC was one of the biggest reasons why they chose Vanderbilt. Of course they're going to come in a little nervous, a little jittery, so I think this was a good game to start with to get those out.

The Press: Carla, were you aware of the three-minute stretch when you pulled away from Kentucky that it was four freshman and Abi on the floor?

Carla: I didn't even notice that actually. I wasn't really paying attention to that.

The Press: At the same time, knowing that 4 freshmen were on the floor when you stretched it from a tie game to a nine-point game, does that build confidence in you guys?

Carla: It is nice to know, but like coach said in practice, we're not freshmen any more, and we can't use that as an excuse for anything. We've got to step up, and a lot of people did.

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Photos of No. 24 Hillary Hager and No. 50 Carla Thomas by Whitney D for Click on thumbnails to view a larger image. Top Stories