Lady Vols hang on, survive Vanderbilt 94-88

NASHVILLE-- Vanderbilt bounced back from three disappointing losses with an inspired performance Sunday afternoon, but it wasn't enough, as the Commodores fell to the No. 3 Tennessee Lady Vols at Memorial Gym, 94-88. Vanderbilt fell to 16-7, 4-6 in the SEC, while Tennessee improved to 21-2, 10-0.

NASHVILLE-- Vanderbilt bounced back from three disappointing losses with an inspired performance in Memorial Gym Sunday afternoon, but it wasn't enough for a victory. The Commodores fell to the No. 3 Tennessee Lady Vols by the score of 94-88.

Four Commodores scored in double figures, led by senior guard Hillary Hager with 23, followed by freshman center Carla Thomas with 17, freshman guard Dee Davis with 15, and senior forward Jenni Benningfield with 13. Tasha Butts led the Lady Vols with 37 points, including six 3-pointers.

Vanderbilt opened by the scoring on a basket by Carla Thomas, but Tennessee quickly tied the game, then opened up a 10-2 advantage on a couple of 3-pointers from Brittany Jackson and a steal and a fastbreak layup by Shyra Ely.

But then it was the Commodores' turn to go on a run. Two straight baskets from Hillary Hager and an old-fashioned 3-point play by Thomas cut the lead to 10-9. After a steal and a fastbreak layup by Jackson, Ashley Earley dished out to a wide-open Dee Davis, who sank a 3-pointer to tie the game at 12-12.

A couple of free throws from freshman forward Sidney Spencer and 3-pointers from Jackson and Tasha Butts gave Tennessee an 8-point lead at 20-12 with 11:43 left.

Once again, however, Vanderbilt had an answer. Over the next four minutes, the Commodores went on a 14-0 run, including four free throws by Jenni Benningfield and 3-pointers from Davis and Abi Ramsey, to take a 26-20 lead with 7:32 left in the half.

But the Commodores weren't finished. Sparked by Davis' fastbreak layup and 3-pointer, Vanderbilt took an 11-point lead 36-25 with 3:49 left in the half. It wouldn't hold up, however, as the Lady Vols chipped away to cut the lead back to six points at 42-36 as the teams headed into the locker room.

In their last few games, the Commodores had struggled at the beginning of the second half. Against Georgia, a 6-point halftime deficit ballooned to a 20-point hole just four minutes into the half. At Alabama, the Commodores trailed by 2 at the half and five minutes later trailed by 17.

At first, it looked as if the pattern might repeat, with the Lady Vols coming back to tie the game at 43-43 three minutes into the second half. Over the next couple of minutes, the lead hung in the balance, with several ties and several lead changes.

A 3-pointer by Butts gave the Lady Vols a 3-point lead at 52-49 with 13:30 left in the game, and Vanderbilt would never regain the lead. A basket from Hager tied the game at 58-58 with 9:08 left, but after that, Tennessee maintained its advantage.

Unlike many other games, the Lady Vols never broke this game wide open, with the tenacious Commodores hanging on. Vanderbilt cut the lead to two points on free throws by Benningfield with 2:20 remaining, and again on a 3-pointer by Hager with 1:33 left.

But a 3-pointer from Butts gave Tennessee a safety cushion, and when Hager missed her next 3-point attempt, Vandy was forced to foul. A 3-pointer by Ramsey pulled Vanderbilt within 3 points at 89-86 with 0:28 left, and the Commodores fouled Butts. She missed the second of two free throws, but unfortunately for the Commodores, she grabbed her own rebound.

There was nothing for the Commodores to do but foul again, and this time Butts made both her shots to give Tennessee a 6-point lead at 92-86 with 0:21 left. In the final seconds, each team scored a basket to make the final score 94-88.

Vandy shot 48.3% from the field, compared to 57.6% for the Lady Vols. Both teams shot better in the second half than the first, with Vanderbilt hitting 44.4% of their shots in the first half and 51.6% in the second. For the Lady Vols, the difference was even more dramatic, as they went from shooting 43.8% in the first half to 74.1% in the second half. Vanderbilt out-rebounded Tennessee (34-29) and had one less turnover (22-23).

Vanderbilt fell to 16-7, 4-6 in the SEC, while Tennessee improved to 21-2, 10-0. Next the Commodores take to the road for a Thursday night game in Baton Rouge against the No. 16 Lady Tigers, then on to Auburn for a rematch with the No. 19 Tigers.


Coach Balcomb: I think the tough part is, we didn't get the win. I think in a game like that, you feel like you've done everything to put yourself in a position to win, and that's what we wanted to do. I have a very young team. I'm proud of their effort. I was proud of their enthusiasm, and I was proud of their attitude all game, from the start to the finish.

The Press: Can you speak to Tasha Butts' 37 points?

Coach Balcomb: She went 6-for-6 from 3. It's kind of obvious. She hit the open 3 that she doesn't usually hit.

The Press: In your scouting report, would you say let her take the 3 based on what she's done this year?

Coach Balcomb: No, we weren't trying to let her shoot the 3. Obviously, you've just got to decide who you want to focus on and who not to, but no, our goal wasn't to leave her open, and certainly after she hit a couple, it wasn't.

The Press: Coach, do you remember what kind of game Shanna Zolman had here? Was she a particular focus?

Coach Balcomb: No, we didn't do anything to do with last year's game here. I was just focused on what we needed to do and improve from our last game against them at their place. No, we weren't thinking about last year's game here.

The Press: Can you talk about this week following the loss at Alabama, to come back and play a much stronger game today?

Coach Balcomb: I think we mixed it up. We did different things. Like I said, I've got a very young team, and it's a long season, and we wanted to keep them motivated and focused, and talked a lot about attitude, not getting down, and playing inspired basketball and no matter whether we get a win or a loss, we're trying to improve, and I think it's very obvious that we have done that. It might not show up in the win-loss category right now.

The Press: Can you talk about Abi on the bench with four fouls? Is that why she was on the bench so much?

Coach Balcomb: No, to be honest with you, I was very happy with how Katie Antony stepped up and played. In this game, you've got to be able to put the ball on the floor and get to the basket and be aggressive and attacking. That was our goal. We shot a ton more free throws than they did at halftime, and I know we finished with more, and that was what we wanted to do, and that's what Katie Antony actually gives us, so it gave us more minutes with a strong driver, which is what we did need, and she really stepped up. I also thought she did a great job on the defensive end.

The Press: Given their problem with turnovers lately, how did you want to attack them defensively?

Coach Balcomb: We just wanted to attack off any steals, any deflections, blocked shots, anything that we could, we wanted to attack and run, and put them on their heels as much as possible. So the more we got steals and deflections, we wanted to be real aggressive, we wanted to be attacking and aggressive on offense and on defense.

The Press: What kinds of things did you do different from last game in Knoxville?

Coach Balcomb: We were much more attacking, and we were much more aggressive. We were going to the basket, eveything was going to. Everything was aggressive, and it made a huge difference how much we got them in foul trouble and how many times we got to the free throw line. Last game, we were on our heels all night; they were attacking us.

The Press: Coach, you talked about Butts going 6-of-6 from 3. Coming in were you concerned about that, their 3-point shooting ability?

Coach Balcomb: I'm concerned about everything about Tennessee. They don't have a lot of weaknesses, so you've got to worry about everything. You've got to make sure if you can't match up and defend inside, you gotta defend outside, you have to be able to do a good job pressuring the basketball and force as many turnovers-- I didn't get to see the stats, I don't know how many turnovers we forced, but we just wanted to force the issue more than anything.

The Press: Coach, were you especially pleased to see an extra dimension from Dee Davis tonight, shooting those 3's in the first half?

Coach Balcomb: Yeah, I think Dee was more aggressive tonight also. I think when she got the open look, she took it, but the biggest thing was, she penetrated more. She attacked more and got the free throw line, which she hadn't done yet all year, and that's a huge improvement that we need and that we got from her tonight.

The Press: It looked like Carla kind of set the tone. Were you pleased with that?

Coach Balcomb: Yeah, I'm really pleased with what Carla's giving us every night. I think she's given us a dominant force inside. I think she's getting more comfortable playing inside. I thought she did a nice job blocking some shots. I think she's just gaining confidence every day and starting to be that more aggressive, confident player that we need her to be.

Coach Balcomb left the room, and freshman point guard Dee Davis, freshman center Carla Thomas, and senior guard Hillary Hager entered the room for questions.

The Press: Carla, can you talk about the opening, the early part of the game? You took the ball right at Robinson-- talk about your mindset coming in.

Carla: Coach told us from the jump that we had to attack, that we had to push the ball as much as possible, attack on offense and defense, and I was just trying to do that.

The Press: Dee, can you talk about how frustrating it is to play defense against a shooter who's as hot as number 3 was for them?

Dee: It was very frustrating because changes could have been made, and I take ownership of that. I should have made some changes in my defense. It was very frustrating.

The Press: Was she one of the ones she was keying in on in the scouting report leading up to this game?

Dee: Not necessarily, but every player on the court you have to focus on. You can't just focus on two or three players; you have to focus on everybody, because everybody can be a threat, so I take the blame on that.

The Press: Hillary, can you talk about the week between the loss at Alabama and the game today? It looked like ya'll played a much better game.

Hillary: Well, coming in, we knew that we had lost three straight, two of them on our home court, and then losing to Alabama, we knew we had to make changes, and we did some things this week that led to those changes, and I think everyone saw that on the court. We were a lot more aggressive. We attacked on offense and defense as Carla said, and that's what we're going to do from here on out. It works.

The Press: Hillary, how different was your approach compared to the last time you played them in Knoxville -- 54 points there, 88 points here-- what was the difference?

Hillary: I think we're a lot better team right now than we were when we played them in Knoxville. We have players back that weren't playing, and those players are more in their rhythm, I think. And we've changed some little things, and I think that's led to us being a lot better team, and I think that's evident.

The Press: Carla, can you talk about how difficult it is when you shot almost 50%, forced 23 turnovers and out-rebounded them, and yet you still have a loss. Do you think you have to play a perfect game to beat them?

Carla: There's no such thing as a perfect game. You can strive to achieve it, but there's no such thing, really. And it's hard. We worked so hard and sometimes shots weren't falling, and sometimes just different things can happen in the flow of the game, so it is difficult to deal with that, but you've got to move past it and look to the next game.

The Press: Hillary, in your preparation for Tennessee, how much did you talk about their 3-point shooting? They got 11 of them today?

Hillary: Yeah, that was addressed a little bit. We knew they were looking more to drive this year as opposed to the past, but we still know they're great 3-point shooters, obviously, as they proved today. We knew they could shoot the 3. With Tennessee, every player can do a little bit of everything, and so we just had to be prepared to play.

The Press: Hillary, as a senior, can you speak to what these two freshmen did tonight? It seemed like they kind of set the tone tonight early on.

Hillary: I'm very proud of what they did and what the rest of us did in terms of attacking because we hadn't done that for, I don't know, maybe the whole year. I think we really did set the tone. From the first tip, we forced them into a turnover. I think we set the tone. They had 23 turnovers, I think that's above their average, and we were aggressive, and we attacked the whole night. That was our game plan, and we executed, and I'm very proud of the freshmen especially for doing that.

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