Dores crush Lady Bulldogs on Senior Night, 87-64

NASHVILLE-- Vanderbilt's four seniors said farewell to Memorial Gym with a bang Thursday night, as the Commodores thumped Mississippi State 87-64 for their third consecutive victory. Ashley Earley, Jenni Benningfield and Abi Ramsey each scored 19 points to lead the Commodores, while Tan White led all scorers with 30 points for the Lady Bulldogs.

NASHVILLE-- Vanderbilt's four seniors said farewell to Memorial Gym with a bang Thursday night, as the Commodores thumped Mississippi State 87-64 for their third consecutive victory. Ashley Earley, Jenni Benningfield and Abi Ramsey each scored 19 points to lead the Commodores, while Tan White led all scorers with 30 points for the Lady Bulldogs.

The game got off to a slow start. MSU's Tiania Burns sank the first basket of the game just 20 seconds into the game, but in the next four minutes, the only points scored were a couple of free throws by Vanderbilt's Carla Thomas. At the first media timeout five minutes into the game, Vanderbilt held a 6-4 lead, and with 11:28 left in the first half, the Commodores led 12-10.

But the Lady Bulldogs could manage only six points the rest of the half, and the Commodores began to score. Ramsey's first 3-pointer of the game gave the Commodores a 15-10 lead. Carla Thomas added a free throw, then Earley reeled off eight straight points, including two old-fashioned 3-point plays. Then Hillary Hager interrupted the all-Earley run with a 3-pointer with 5:36 left in the half to give Vanderbilt a 27-12 lead. By halftime, Vanderbilt had taken a 17-point lead at 33-16.

The game heated up in the second half, but for the first five miniutes, neither team could make a run. With the Lady Bulldogs trailing by 16, White got hot for MSU, hitting four 3-pointers in less than two minutes to cut the Commodore lead to single digits at 46-37.

But that would be Mississippi State's last gasp. A layup by Benningfield with 13:25 left put the lead back at double digits for good, and by the 11:00 mark, the lead was back to 17 and continued to grow until it hit 28 points with 5:31 left.

The crowd began to chant "We want the seniors," but the fans had to wait a little while longer until senior reserves Venessa Ferragamo and Jutta Korkko entered the game. With about three minutes left and the score 81-54, seniors Hager and Benningfield left the court for the last time.

By that time, the fat lady was tuning up in the lobby, and when the final buzzer sounded, the Commodores had claimed an 87-64 victory.

For the game, Vanderbilt shot 45% from the field (39% from 3-point range) compared to 38% (41% from 3-point range) for Mississippi State. Both teams shot better in the second half, with MSU improving from 26% to 52%, and Vanderbilt improving from 37% to 50%.

The Commodores dominated the boards by a margin of 58-26. The dominance was so complete that Vanderbilt had more offensive boards (27) than MSU had altogether. Turnovers were close, with 15 for Vanderbilt and 16 for the Lady Bulldogs.

Vanderbilt improved to 19-7, 7-6 in the SEC, while MSU fell to 12-14, 6-7. The Commodores play their last game of the season Sunday afternoon against the South Carolina Gamecocks in Columbia. Sunday's game will be a major determining factor in seeding for the SEC Tournament, which begins next Thursday at the Gaylord Entertainment Center in Nashville.


Coach Balcomb: I really couldn't have scripted it better. I think we really wanted to do well today. We had extra motivation for our seniors and wanted to get them in the game. I think we did a good job in the second half opening things up . The first half we played great defense, rebounded well, but on offense were tight. I think we really wanted to play well for the seniors, play well at home, the way we've been playing on the road, and we were tight. Second half, we loosened up on offense and put the two together.

The Press: You allowed 30 more points in the second half, did you think the defensitve intensity wasn't there as much?

Coach Balcomb: No, the big thing was we couldn't bring the margin. I think we did a great job defensively, but once you start scoring, and it's more up and down, they're going to get a lot more posessions. The game was in the tempo we wanted in the second half. I told them at halftime, it was like watching paint dry. I couldn't stand the game at halftime, and, yeah, we gave up more points in the second half, but a lot of that had to do with Tan got real hot. She's very streaky, and we didn't make the adjustments we needed to make on her. That was the only thing I was really disappointed in. The fact that we out-rebounded them 58 to 26-- that's a really strong rebounding game, and the point of that is 27 offensive rebounds, it's something we've been working on. I think we're last in the league. But every game we've been really concentrating on getting better at that and getting second shots, and I think that helped to loosen us up instead of just one and out.

The Press: You said in the first half it was like watching paint dry. It looked like Ashley gave you a lift off the bench.

Coach Balcomb: Yeah, she came off the bench ready to play. But she played really, really well in practice the last two days, especially yesterday. I noticed more confidence, more energy, wanting the ball inside like she hadn't in awhile. I said to her at practice yesterday that it was great to have her back, and she brought it to the game today, and hopefully she'll continue to play like that.

The Press: Coach, could you say a few words about each of the seniors.

Coach Balcomb: First of all, Jutta and Venessa -- they've helped us so much on the bench, and even though they haven't played a lot this season, they've added a lot of value on the bench and off the court especially. They really love the freshmen and were an important part in that transition, and really taking care of them on and off the court and really have gelled with them. That has helped our team chemistry.

Hillary has taken on quite a bit of leadership role with the team and with myself and the staff, and like I've always said, she's the glue, and she's filled every hole that we've asked her to fill, every role that we've asked her fill all season, and nobody that I've ever coached works harder than Hillary Hager. She's really prepared, and I love coaching her.

Jenni Benningfield, the same thing, she's gotten a tough season her senior year getting injured, but she's fought through it, and I think she's gotten stronger not just physically but mentally and emotionally. I think it's been good for her confidence to get her back with our team at this point.

And the biggest thing I want to say about all four of them is that they are better people than they are players. I just enjoy them on and off the floor, and they have a lot to do with the whole transition. Right away in the summer they took our freshmen under their wing and led when we weren't allowed to be with our team and made that transition a very easy one for our freshmen.

The Press: Coach, what did you have to fix when MSU made the run and got within 9 in the second half?

Coach Balcomb: We had to stop letting Tan shoot the ball. She made a run. She got hot, and we continued to let her shoot the three instead of getting out and making her put it on the floor. And it's tough because she's a complete player. You saw Hillary and Dee not comfortable with getting in her shorts because they know they can get beat off the dribble by her. She can pull up, she can beat you off the dribble to the basket, and she can shoot the three. So we just had to make it very clear, which I thought we already had, that we needed to get out on her and stay out on her and make her put the ball down on the floor. Because, really, her three isn't her strength. We made her go to her weakness, which is not a real weakness. She's not a bad 3-point shooter, but, boy, as you saw at the end of the game, she can take you off the dribble like there's no tomorrow. She's a complete player. We played a little box-and-one, a little triangle-and-two, at least on dead balls, to try to keep the ball out of her hands a little more and then we got up and tried to make her put it on the floor.

The Press: Isn't it kind of hard to guard her on the 3 becasuse she plays so far out?

Coach Balcomb: Yeah, she takes it from so deep and then you want to play off her because she's going to beat you off the dribble. Again, it was something that if you want her to take anything, it's that, but then when she hits a couple, you've got to adjust.

The Press: Coach, can you talk about the team's confidence now, getting over .500 with the SEC tournament coming up?

Coach Balcomb: We're a different team than we were when we played Georgia and Florida here, and I think there's a big difference in our confidence level, mentally, in our depth, and even when you watch us practice, we're very very competitive again. It almost reminded me of the first day of practice when the freshmen were challenging the upperclassmen for their spots, and we had some moments during the season when that wasn't happening anymore, and now, I think with a young team the freshmen see the end of the tunnel. They see the SEC tournament, they see NCAAs, they see the end of the tunnel, which is why you come to college and what you want, so there's a new surge from them, and it's fun to watch them again. They're competing and working harder than they have all year, so we keep improving and getting better.

Coach Balcomb left, and the four seniors -- Hillary Hager, Jenni Benningfield, Venessa Ferragamo, and Jutta Korkko -- entered the room and took their places at the podium for questions.

The Press: Hillary, talk about the rebounding edge. It seemed like every offensive rebound was in your guys hands all night long.

Hillary: Yeah, I think the rebounding margin was something like 50-something to 20-something, and I think we had something like 27 offensive boards, and I guess coach just told us that we're last in the SEC for offensive boards, and we had 27 tonight. Yeah, that was key. That was one of our focus goals, and we did it.

Jenni: Jenni, was there any pressure so you could get up big quick so you could get these other two guys into the game?

Jenni: No, no, It's not like that. (In the background several "unh-unh"s and a little laughter can be heard.) It's not like that. No. They're ready to play. They've been practicing awesome. They contribute as much everybody, if not more, on our team. They play with heart. They work every day. They push us. They make us better. It's awesome. They got in, and I told them, "Enjoy this, because you deserve it." They've worked so hard, and for them to get the opportunity to play, that's awesome. And it's not about us getting up enough to put them in or not. It's not about that. It's about them working hard and earning the opportunity to be out there.

The Press: Venessa, how did it feel going to the free throw line to shoot three when you've only had seven attempts your whole career?

Venessa: Oh dear. Well, coach would probably not be too happy with this, but I was just thinking, "Lord, just hit something." (Laugher.) I didn't to airball because my hands were freezing, and I was like, OK, here we go. I was a wreck, so I was like, calm down and hit something.

Then Tan White, she was like, "Hey, 15, calm down, you know you can do it." (Laughter.)Then after the game --

Jenni: Did she really say that?

Venessa: Yeah, she did. It was so cool. Then after the game, she came up to me and said, "Venessa," well, she didn't say my name probably, but she was like, you couldn't go out missing all three. I was like, "I know, I know, I had to get one," so I hit one. That was really cool, and I said, "Way to represent the number." She's a cool kid. She's good. I was a little nervous, I'll have to admit I was a little nervous.

The Press: Venessa, were you more nervous for the 3 free thorws or when Candice handed you the microphone in the ceremony after the game?

Venessa: Oh, it's a tossup. Well, I passed it off to Jutta pretty quick. Probably the free throws.

The Press: Jenni, you've been through Senior Night now both as a junior watching the seniors leave and now as a senior leaving yourself. What's the difference between the two?

Jenni: Well, last year with Mac and Chantelle leaving, that was big, They were two incredible people, and they played a big role on our team, and I was sad to see them leave. It's obviously different. I really didn't understand what they were going through last year. But I think being a senior, you appreciate everything that you do the last time a little bit more because you know it's your last time. Tonight, I don't think it hit me until after the buzzer sounded. I was sort of looking around the gym, thinking I'm never going to have this jersey on and see the same things I'm seeing and be a part of the same things I was tonight and have been. It's different, but it's exciting because I know all four of us can say that we can walk away -- and it's not over by any means -- but we can walk away after the season and know that we gave it our best for four years, and we got to do a lot of amazing things. We went to Italy. We got to go all kinds of places around the country. We got to meet so many different people. It was incredible how many things we've gotten to do. Tonight I've just learned to look back and reflect and be thankful for everything that we've been able to do and for me to be able to share it with these three people up here right now, it's been awesome. They're awesome, what else can you say about it? It's been fun, but it's not over with yet, so we're going keep making memories.

The Press: For the 3 of you, what was it like when the final buzzer sounded?

Hillary: It didn't really hit me actually until we were coming down the stairs, and one of the ushers said, "See you later, Hillary," and I was like, well, that's the last time I'll see him, and that's when it hit me. It was sad. It was kind of a sad moment for a minute, but I approached it tonight like it was a game, we've got to beat Mississippi State, we'll have fun afterwards. There's a lot more basketball left to be played. But, yeah, it was a little sad coming down the stairs. It was.

Jutta: No comment. (Laughter.)

Jenni: You've always wanted to say that, haven't you? (Pause.) She's really not going to say anything. (Laughs.)

The Press: Hillary, y'all went from 12-10 to 33-14, what happened?

Hillary: Hmm, what WAS the difference? I don't know really what happened, to tell you the truth. I don't have a good answer to that. Because we didn't score for the first four minutes of the game-- I don't know. I feel like we were maybe a little out of synch--

Jenni: --a little tight...

Hillary: -- a little tight, maybe. That's probably a good word. I was a little out of it the first half, that's for sure. I think we just pulled it together. Then in the second half, I think we got it together offensively. Defensively, we played pretty much the whole game, but offensively we got it together and started having more fun out there.

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