Vanderbilt has won numerous games using its defense this season, but on Sunday, the tables were turned. Against the Gators, it was offense that kept Vanderbilt in the game, while the defense couldn't produce the critical stops necessasry to pull ahead.
"I think this is the first game I can say that our defense is where we really struggled," said head coach Melanie Balcomb. "We've won a lot of games this year on our defense, and tonight wasn't one of them. We really struggled defensively getting stops when we needed to."
The game stayed close for the entirety, with neither team leading by double digits at any point. The Commodores scored the game's first basket, but the Gators held a small lead through most of the first half.
Vanderbilt took a brief 15-12 lead when Benningfield was fouled on a driving layup and made the basket and foul shot. But Florida soon regained the upper hand at 18-17. The Commodores took the lead again at 30-29 with five minutes remaining, when Hillary Hager grabbed the rebound of Abi Ramsey's miss and stuck it back for two points.
But once again, the Commodores couldn't make the defensive stop that would have allowed them to extend the lead. Instead, the Gators immediately regained the lead and held it for the remainder of the half. Florida led 36-34 at halftime.
Ashley Earley scored the first basket of the second half to tie the game, but once again Florida quickly regained the lead immediately. But each time Florida threatened to pull ahead, the Commodores scored timely baskets to keep it close.
With 11:33 left, Thomas scored on an inbounds play to tie the score at 55-55, but once again, Florida took back the lead on a Sarah Lowe 3-pointer and a basket by Vanessa Hayden. But Vanderbilt had yet another answer-- after another basket from Thomas, Ramsey stole an inbounds pass and laid it in. Then Thomas scored on a fast break to put the Commodores ahead 61-60.
That would be Vanderbilt's last lead of the game. The Gators immediately regained the lead on a 3-pointer by Danielle Santos. With 7:34 left in the game, Florida led 67-61. But the Commodores still fought back, thanks a 3-pointer from freshman Cherish Stringfield and six more points from Thomas, including two free throws that tied the hgame at 70-70 with 5:10 remaining.
But then the roof began to cave in. Over a critical two-minute stretch, the Gators scored three times off offensive rebounds and grabbed all the Commodores' misses too. To compound the problem, in those same two minutes, Vanderbilt committed three turnovers. Florida's lead was 78-71 with 2:49 remaining.
From that point on, Vanderbilt sent Florida repeatedly to the free-throw line, but the Gators were up to the challenge, hitting 12-of-14 foul shots in the game's final minutes. At the final buzzer, Florida claimed the 92-83 victory.
Vanderbilt was led in scoring by Jenni Benningfield with 20, followed by Carla Thomas with 17, Abi Ramsey and Ashley Earley with 13 each, and Hillary Hager with 11. Earley was leading rebounder with 7, while Hager had 6. Erica Grimaldi had 4 assists, and Ramsey and Dee Davis had 3 each.
For the game, Vanderbilt shot 52.5% from the field compared to 50.8% for Florida. Florida was 5-of-6 from 3-point range (83.3%), while Vanderbilt was 7-of-17 (41.2%). The Gators out-rebounded the Commodores 37-30 and had fewer turnovers, 23-18.
With the loss, Vanderbilt fell to 16-4 overall (4-3 SEC), while Florida improved to 15-5 overall (5-2 SEC). The Commodores next action is Thursday night in Memorial Gym when they host the Georgia Lady Bulldogs at 7 p.m.
POST GAME COMMENTS:
Coach Balcomb: I think this is the first game I can say that our defense is where we really struggled. We've won a lot of games this year on our defense, and tonight wasn't one of them. We really struggled defensively getting stops when we needed to. Every time we made a run on offense, we still couldn't get the stops that we needed to. And part of getting stops is checking out and rebounding, and they either hit open shots, or we didn't check out, and I thought that just really hurt us. That's why we couldn't get a lead. Questions?
The Press: Can you please talk about matchup problems that Morehead and Hayden pose?
Coach Balcomb: Well, we don't match up with either one of them, but we played a lot of matchup zone and even ran some triangle and two and just tried to do different things to avoid her getting the ball and trying to keep the ball out of her hands as much as possible, and then, when we did that, Morehead really stepped up.
The Press: Coach, you were 14-of-21 from the line. Would you expect this team to shoot better from the line?
Coach Balcomb: Yeah, especially since we've been shooting really well from the free throw line at home especially with confidence.
The Press: Coach, is this a game in which you wish you had more extended minutes available for Dee Davis, especially in the second half?
Coach Balcomb: No, I don't think that was a factor at all.
The Press: Coming off the road win Thursady night and the way you played at Arkansas, how tough is it to come home and lose on your home court?
Coach Balcomb: It just balances out the win you have at Arkansas, so that is tough mentally. But I have a young team, and we can't get down because we need to keep gaining confidence, and we have to get ready for Georgia.
The Press: To what do you attribute the defensive difficulties tonight?
Coach Balcomb: Like he said, we had a tough time matching up with Hayden and that left some other people open, and Morehead stepped in and really stepped up and a big part was offensive rebounding. We gave up too many drives and did not rotate and check out.
The Press: Can you talk about the point guard situations? You played several different players at point.
Coach Balcomb: Yeah. They were giving open looks to the both point guards so at the end of the game I played Cherish, and that's why she got the 3 she did, because they were using that person as a helper.
The Press: The turnovers down the stretch, is that a sign of a young team?
Coach Balcomb: Yeah, we had turnovers all game, 23 turnovers. We've had 26 turnovers. That's something that we've been working really hard on in practice, and we've got to start taking care of the basketball better. I know we're young, but we can only say that so long. All these freshmen have played a lot of minutes, and we need to do a better job taking care of the basketball, reading the doubles, and reading what they're taking away, instead of just throwing the pass that's in the offense. We need to read the defense.
You have a lot of young players that haven't been pressured like that in their lives, so they're just throwing the pass that's supposed to be thrown in the offense instead of reading the defense, and when you play Florida for a second time, they're going to take certain things away, double certain places, and now you have to ball fake and hit the other player, and that player has to communicate, and we have to get better at that. It's the next step from being able to run an offense. We're running offenses, but we're not reading the defense yet. And we'll be tough to guard once we start to see the defense also.
The Press: Did you see some positives offensively today?
Coach Balcomb: The positive is that we are executing our offenses. We used to have freshmen out there that would forget the offenses once we started playing because of the pressure of being in a game, period. Now we're running them. Like I said, now we need to get to the second part of it and step up and read the defense, because we have a counter for everything that they do, but we're not getting to that point yet where we seeing the other colored jersey, we're just running the offense. And if we don't have it, we're just turning it over or hesitating. There's still too much hesitation on offense, but the positive is last time we played them, we scored 61 points, and this time we had 83. So, yes, I do think our offense has been catching up to our defense, and it's getting better all the time. That's why it's so disappointing to have this kind of defensive effort because our defense has been strong all year.
Coach Balcomb left, and senior post Jenni Benningfield and freshman post Carla Thomas entered the room for questions.
The Press: Jenni, did you feel like Vanessa was the factor today that she was down there?
Jenni: I think she plays a big role for their team, but I think a lot of it was we beat ourselves today. They took us out of our game. We didn't do a lot of things that we do in practice. We didn't check out and kept turning the ball over. Hayden had a great game, but I don't think that she alone beat us. I think the loss is our fault. Coaches prepared us. Our defense is what killed us, and our turnovers.
The Press: Carla, did you try anything different in the second because it didn't seem like Vanessa was quite as big a factor in the second half as in the first half?
Carla: I don't think it was anything I did differently, it was just doing what I was supposed to do in the first place, getting a hand in the passing lane and trying to limit her touches and trying to stay in front of her, between her and the ball and the basket. There wasn't anything that different.
The Press: Carla, how much more comfortable are you now versus the beginning of the year when you're out there?
Carla: I'm definitely more comfortable, but I definitely had my moments in the first half where I played tenative, and I knew I needed to change that in the second half.
The Press: Jenni, does this game kind of erase the value of the Arkansas road win?
Jenni: I think it raises the importance of the next games ahead. We've got Georgia here on Thursday, a great basketball program. We need that win. We need that win. We have to protect our home court, which we didn't do today, and we can't let that happen again, and we have to get wins on the road. Arkansas was important in the fact that we got our first road win that itself gave us a confidence booster, but I think it's more important the games to come because there's nothing we can do about those games. Yeah, we won at Arkansass, that's great, that's good, but we have look one game ahead, each game at a time, and Georgia's a very, very important game for us. I think not only for our season but mentally, we need that win. We need to beat at home and get on a winning streak again before we go on to our next game.
The Press: Jenni, apart from the tuornovers, offensively you had five players in double figures, so...
Jenni: You know, it's funny, Coach made a comment in the locker room. This is probably the first time we can say "Defense is what killed us tonight." Defense has won a lot of games for us this season because our offense hasn't been up to the same level as our defense. Well, we've had some great practices, and we just didn't take it over to the game today. Our offense kept us in the game. We were running a lot of things well today, besides the turnovers. That's good. That's definitely a booster for us. But we've just got to get our defense-- defense wins games, and that's the case today, and we didn't play any, so we didn't win. It's good that we had balanced scoring, that we had a lot of people in double figures, so I think that only continue and now that we know what we can do on offense, if we can get a 40-minute game, with everybody on the same page for offense and defense, we're going to be a good basketball program.
The Press: Jenni, are you restricted at all by your foot now?
Jenni: I went 25-30 minutes today, and we'll just keep going from there. I'm getting more minutes in practice, and it's feeling great, it feels fine, so I'll get more and more each week. I feel pretty good.
The Press: Carla, Vanessa had five blocks. It looked like you all didn't really shy away from taking the ball inside and taking the ball at her. Was that an emphasis or a mindset that you wanted?
Carla: It was. The whole point was to get her in foul trouble and take it to her, and we couldn't be hesitant, especially with her in the game. By the end of the game, she did have four fouls, so it worked.
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