Commodores bounce LadyBacks on road, 74-69

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark.-- The Vanderbilt Commodores improved to 4-2 in the SEC (16-3 overall) Thursday with a thrilling 74-69 win over the Arkansas Lady Razorbacks at Bud Walton Arena. Senior center Jenni Benningfield, still recovering from a stress fracture in her right foot, paced the Commodores with 16 points, including a perfect 10-of-10 from the free-throw line.

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark.-- The Vanderbilt Commodores improved to 4-2 in the SEC (16-3 overall) with a thrilling 74-69 win over the Arkansas Lady Razorbacks Thursday at Bud Walton Arena.

Senior center Jenni Benningfield, still recovering from a stress fracture in her right foot, paced the Commodores with 16 points, including a perfect 10-of-10 from the free-throw line. Hillary Hager added 14, followed by Carla Thomas (12) and Ashley Earley (11). Ruby Vaden led Arkansas with 29.

The game was a game of runs. Arkansas jumped on top first with a 16-10 lead on a 3-pointer by April Seggenbruch with 12:39 left in the half.

The Commodores punched back with a 6-0 run of their own, with three points each from Hager and Katie Antony, to knot the game at 16-16 with 7:37 left in the first half.

For the rest of the half, the two teams battled neck-and-neck. After being tied at 16-16, they were later tied at 17-17, then 19-19, then 21-21. Before the half was over, each team would manage to get a shaky 3-point lead, only to immediately lose it. At the half the teams were once again dead even at 32-32.

In the first few minutes of the second half, the LadyBacks threatened to blow the Commodores' ship right out of the water. Coming out of the locker room, Arkansas reeled off ten straight points, to take the biggest lead of the night at 42-32 just three minutes into the second half.

But Vanderbilt wasn't going to fade away quietly. A pair of free throws from Thomas, a 3-pointer from Hager, and a jumper by Thomas cut the Arkansas lead back to just 3 points at 42-39.

Arkansas threatened to pull away again, but the Commodores kept battling, cutting the lead to two points at 46-44, then slipping backwards again to trail 50-44 at the 10:35 mark.

Then Vanderbilt ratcheted up the defense. After a basket by Earley cut the lead to 50-46, Erica Grimaldi was fouled after a steal, putting the Commodores into the bonus with ten minutes left in the half. Grimaldi sank the front end of the 1-and-1, then sank the second. Another Grimaldi steal led to a Cherish Stringfield layup and the game was tied at 50-50.

Over the next five minutes, it looked as if the Commodores might slowly pull away. A 3-pointer from Grimaldi with 5:35 left gave Vandy a 64-58 lead, and with 4:18 left, the Commodores led 67-60.

But this time, it was the LadyBacks who refused to die. In less than a minute and a half, a couple of 3-pointers from Peoples and a basket and a free throw by Vaden gave the lead back to Arkansas at 69-67 with 2:50 remaining.

As it turned out, however, that was the end of the scoring for the LadyBacks. Benningfield sank two free throws to tie the game at 69-69. With 0:24 left, Stringfield drove to the basket, then kicked the ball out to Hager, who sank a 3-pointer to give the Commodores a 72-69 lead.

Forced to foul, Arkansas sent Benningfield back to the line, where she sank two more free throws to seal the 74-69 victory for Vanderbilt.

For the game, Vanderbilt shot 48.9% from the field (45.5% from 3-point range) and 85.2% from the free-throw line, while Arkansas shot 49.1% from the field (36.4% from 3-point range) but only 38.5% from the line. Vanderbilt out-rebounded Arkansas 36-26, but had more turnovers with 26 compared to 20 for the LadyBacks.

With the victory Vanderbilt improved to 16-3 overall (4-2 SEC), while Arkansas fell to 13-6 (2-4 in the SEC). Next action for Vanderbilt is on Sunday afternoon when the Florida Gators visit Memorial Gym. Game time is 2 p.m.

POST-GAME COMMENTS

Coach Balcomb: The biggest thing I'd like to say is that this was a much-needed and wanted road win in the SEC for us. I think they played very very hard. I want to give Arkansas credit first of all. They played tremendously hard for 40 minutes, and I was really really proud of how my players handled the environment. The crowd was great, the environment was tough, they were playing hard, and every time they made a run, we made a counter run. I thnk we held ourselves with great composure.

The Press: In the second half, you were down ten, up seven, just a roller coaster tonight.

Coach Balcomb: Like I said, I think both teams played in spurts, and we made some runs, they made runs. Most of the time, they made the run first. They made the run in the beginning of the game, and they came out in the second half really fired up. Sometimes as a staff we say we wish there was no halftime, because we came out really flat after halftime. But like I said, we had good leadership on the floor, and we settled down, and especially the three people that are with me handled themselves very, very well under pressure and continued to execute what we've been trying to get them to do, even though we got down.

The Press: Shameka Christon is such a big part of their game plan. Were you surprised they were going to Vaden?

Coach Balcomb: I thought they were smart. I thought they did some very good things against our matchup zones that other teams haven't done. They did some really nice things, and I thought that Vaden really stepped up on the offensive glass at halftime especially. She had a ton of points just on putbacks. But then they posted her and got the ball to her and she took high-percentage shots and made them. I would have got her the basketball, too. I thought she had a great night.

The Press: Hillary, can you talk about your last shot a little bit?

Hillary: Yeah, I think I kind of hesitated on the first look I had, and ran the play through, got it to Cherish, and she drew and dished and had a great pass to me, and I was wide open, and I hit it.

The Press: Were you aware of the shot clock at that point?

Hillary: I figured it was kind of down somewhere, because that's kind of a long play, but I didn't know. What was it?

The Press: It was close.

Hillary: I had no idea.

The Press: I think you were 1-for-5 at halftime on 3-pointers and in the second half you had more. Is that part of your game?

Hillary I would say so. We have both inside and outside, but, yeah, we have good shooters. There are a lot of people who can shoot on our team.

Coach Balcomb: I was saying on the radio that Jenni made the biggest presence she's made since she's been back, posting up and wanting the ball inside. Whether she got it or not, she either got it and got fouled or made a presence, a big difference wanting the ball inside and posting every time down, and that opened up our 3-point shot, and our guards had more time to shoot the ball. So either she got fouled inside, or our guards got a look from the outside that we didn't get in the first half.

The Press: Erica was a huge spark tonight. Can you talk about her?

Coach Balcomb: Yeah, I think Erica has just gotten better and better in practice, and she's been our calming leader when things have rattled us the last three games, and we put her in because we needed to be calmed down. We have three other people playing point, and they're freshmen, and they all got rattled, and Erica's been the calming force, and she's been a great leader, and she really settled us down, and that's what we were looking for her to do. And she played within herself, she got the ball to the people that we needed, she made sure we executed the offenses that we needed, and then, when she was left wide open, she hit the three that we needed. So I can't ask any more. She also plays great defense. Actually, usually when we put her in, it's for defense. She did a great job on defense also.

The Press: How did you play Christon tonight? She had not one of her better games.

Coach Balcomb: How many did she end up with? (13) I knew she had six at half, and I haven't seen the final stats, but to keep her at 13, I thought we did a good job. We were focused on making other people try to beat us and making other people be a little more open, and I think Vaden and Peoples really stepped up and hit a lot of shots that hurt us. But at the same time, Christon is their go-to, and that's who they're used to getting the ball to, and their scoring isn't that balanced, so I think especially down the stretch, she was missing her shots, and I think she was out of sync because she hadn't gotten the ball that much. And that was the goal, to keep the ball out of her hands as much as possible and double her as much as possible.

The Press: Jenni, ya'll were down 10 points right after halftime. Can you talk about what it took to get back into the game?

Jenni: We knew they were going to make runs playing at their house, but we just realized that we've gotta keep going to the things that we know what to do. They got us out of what we know to do in a game. We just had to relax, and play defense. Defense is going to lead to offense, and we weren't playing defense, and that's why they got the 10-0 run. We just realized we had to check out, and we had to play defense, and then we're going to be fine on offense, and that's what it took. It was just a matter of us calming down, and communicating more. I don't think we were talking in the back line of our zone much, and I think we definitely made a change with that as we came back.

The Press: Jenni, you've been over here before in this situation. How ironic was it that Vanderbilt charged up the defense on them instead of the other way like they've done so many times?

Jenni: Oh, we knew this is a tough place to play, and I know a lot of the upperclassmen remember playing here two years ago, and how hard an environment it is to play and how good a team Arkansas is and how good their defense can be. But that was two years ago, and we had to focus on our team this year. Most of our games this year have been won on defense, and that's one thing we really focused on in the practices before the game, really working on defense because that's going to lead to offense.

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Photo of Jenni Benningfield hitting one of her ten foul shots by Rose Mary Drake for VandyMania.com.


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