Before a Fan Appreciation Day crowd of 3,303 Sunday afternoon in the O'Connell Center, Abi Ramsey carried the scoring load for Vandy with 20 points, including six 3-pointers, while Hillary Hager (11 points, 10 rebounds) and Ashley Earley (10 points, 10 rebounds) each notched double-doubles.
Vanderbilt fell to 13-2 (1-1 SEC), while Florida improved to 11-4, 1-1.
For the second straight game, two Commodore starters were available for only very limited minutes. Freshman point guard Dee Davis continues to recover from a stress reaction in her right foot, while senior center and leading scorer Jenni Benningfield is still hampered by a stress fracture in her right foot.
The game was tightly contested from start to finish. The only double-digit lead for either team occured on two free throws from Tashia Morehead with 0:34 left after Vanderbilt had begun desperation fouling in the attempt to regain possession.
The Commodores learned what they were up against in the game's first four minutes, as Florida's Vanessa Hayden, Tashia Morehead, and Bernice Mosby each blocked shots. The blocks led to points on the other end, giving Florida an early 5-0 lead. Vanderbilt finally got on the board on a layup from Ashley Earley with 16:00 on the clock.
Starting out in a hole, the Commodores stopped the bleeding but trailed for most of the half until a Caroline Williams 3-pointer tied the game at 20-20 with 7:25 left in the first half.
A layup by Morehead put the Gators back in front, but six straight points from Jenn Hall, four of them on putbacks following offensive rebounds, put the Commodores in front 26-24 with 3:46 left in the half. The teams jockeyed back and forth for the final minutes of the half, which ended with Florida holding a 31-28 lead.
The Gators managed to maintain their lead for the first part of the second half. Vanderbilt cut the lead to one point a couple of times, but a free throw by Bernice Mosey gave the Gators a 5-point lead at 39-34.
Then the tide turned in the Commodores' favor. A steal by Hillary Hager led to an Ashley Earley layup on the other end; an Earley rebound led to a layup by Carla Thomas; and Katie Antony fed Abi Ramsey for a 3-pointer, giving Vanderbilt a 41-39 lead with 10:52 left.
The Commodores held the lead for a few minutes, but a 3-pointer by Morehead with eight minutes left gave the Gators the lead for good. A couple of Vanderbilt turnovers helped the Gators build a 51-44 lead with 6:24 left in the game. A 3-pointer by Hillary Hager cut the Gator lead to 52-49 with 4:42 left, but Vanderbilt would get no closer.
The final three minutes of the game turned into a foul-shooting contest for Florida, as the Commodores repeatedly sent the Gators to the free-throw line. All of Florida's points during those final minutes of the game came from the charity stripe, as they sank 11 of 14 free throws.
In the meantime Ramsey sank three 3-pointers, including two in the final 30 seconds of the game, and Antony sank a couple of free throws, but it wasn't enough.
Vanderbilt outshot Florida from the field, 43.4% to 40.8%. Both teams shot well from 3-point range, with the Commodores connecting on 10-of-16 for 62.4%, while the Gators sank 6-of-11 for 54.5%.
Vanderbilt out-rebounded the Gators 40-29, but committed 24 turnovers to Florida's 12. Of the 24 Vanderbilt turnovers, 18 were credited as Florida steals. The turnovers led to 23 Florida points.
Vanderbilt has a week off, with its next game coming Jan. 18 vs. Auburn at home. ESPN2 will televise the 4:30 p.m. CT game.
After the game, Vanderbilt Head Coach Melanie Balcomb answered questions from the media, then spoke with VandyMania for a few minutes.
The Press: Coach, can you make some general comments about how the Gators won the game?
Coach Balcomb: I think they did a great job of getting to the free throw line. We sent them to the line too many times. That was one of the big differences today and also forcing us into a lot of turnovers. We need to take care of the ball better, but I give them credit. They really pressured us and pressured our guards. We're very very young at the guards, especially at the point guard, and they forced us into a lot of turnovers that I think helped create a lot of their easy points.
The Press: You didn't have one of your better players available, Benningfield.
Coach Balcomb: Yeah, we have two starters out. Dee Davis was our point starter, and now Jenni Benningfield is--
The Press: How did that affect you guys tonight?
Coach Balcomb: It's been tough. We didn't have her last game, either, and I think we're very young and playing a lot of freshmen, and to be on the road, and they had a great crowd, they did a great job marketing and getting a good crowd, and playing in the SEC for the first time on the road, especially going up against Vanessa Hayden, who I think is probably the best post player in the country. We did some things well, but we didn't do them well enough.
The Press: Talk about the transition game. I think that Tishona Gregory had like 7 steals; it seemed like they were throwing you off, the fast pace of the game. Did it seem like a struggle getting back and forth?
Coach Balcomb : It was just that she picked up the pressure on our guards, especially our freshmen point guards. And like I said, without our starting point guard out there either, we really struggled under their pressure. They'd pressure the ball, and the next kid would rotate up and make an easy steal. They got a lot of easy baskets offensively off of their defense.
VandyMania: You have two freshmen point guards available, Katie Antony and Cherish Stringfield. Can you talk about the differences between them and who's playing in what situation?
Coach Balcomb: It's whoever's playing well. Right now they're very inconsistent, and that's the way freshmen are. Right now Carla and Jenn Hall are the same thing, so we're going to get inconsistent play with them, and we're going to play whoever has the most confidence at the time. I like having two point guards that are very different players, but at the same time you don't know until you're out there going against a certain kind of different pressure, and depending on what the other team does, we usually don't have a feel until in the game who's playing well, who's playing better than the other player, and tonight, neither one of them played well, so it was tough.
VandyMania: How was Florida's pressure different from the pressure of other teams you've faced?
Coach Balcomb: I don't think it was different. They really stepped into our space, but I think they did the best job on our points. They pressured the wing, but they also did a good job of stepping in the passing lanes when they did pressure our points. But a lot of the time, they just took the ball out of our hands and forced us to lose our dribble and things like that. That's just pressure on the ball.
VandyMania: When you're in a situation like this, where you have a senior leader and a starting freshman point guard out, how do you help the team deal with that psychological and emotionally?
Coach Balcomb: Well, I think we have to just concentrate on not getting down, especially being in a game this close on the road with a lot of freshmen playing and expecting them to play against an All-American like Vanessa Hayden and the physical play and the crowd, all that enters in, with 10 minutes to go to have a 3-point lead. That's promising. Yes, I think that this is a team that we need to be able to beat at home, but right now, they weren't there yet. They weren't ready yet. And hopefully we just keep better and don't get down on ourselves and get to the point where we're a lot more improved and have a different result next time.