Vanderbilt finished the regular season 20-7. The Commodores' 8-6 SEC record places them in a three-way tie for fourth place with Georgia and Florida. However, since both teams own the tiebreaker over Vanderbilt, the Commodores will be seeded sixth in the SEC tournament, which begins Thursday at the Gaylord Entertainment Center.
The first half of the game featured lots of missed shots by both teams and lots of fouls by the Commodores. Vanderbilt shot only 30% from the field in the half, and the Gamecocks fared even worse, shooting an abysmal 28%. By the end of the half, five Commodores had at least two personal fouls, and the team was charged with 13 altogether.
Vanderbilt led for most of the half by as much as seven points, but couldn't pull away. With 3:09 left in the half, South Carolina seized the lead at 22-21 on a basket by Iva Sliskovic, their first lead of the night. Vanderbilt regained the lead on a couple of made free throws by Ashley Earley.
As it turned out, the Gamecocks would never regain the upper hand; as the teams headed to the locker room for halftime, the Commodores held the slimmest of leads at 24-23.
The Commodores struck quickly in the second half, with Hager scoring on a drive, then shortly afterwards sinking her first 3-pointer to extend the Vanderbilt lead to six points at 29-23. South Carolina Head Coach Susan Walvius quickly called a 30-second timeout, but the Commodore run continued as Thomas scored on twice on putbacks.
Cristina Ciocan broke the Vanderbilt run with a basket, but a pair of free throws by Ramsey, another 3-pointer from Hager, and a layup by Ramsey on a fastbreak gave the Commodores a 15-point lead at 40-25 with 14:22 left in the game.
South Carolina never managed to cut the lead back to single digits. With 13:11 left, the Gamecocks closed the gap to 40-30, but could come no closer. From that point on, the Vanderbilt lead hovered between 14 and 19 points until Thomas' layup gave the Commodores their biggest lead at 62-41, which turned out to be the final margin.
Carla Thomas led Vanderbilt in scoring with 20 points, followed by Hillary Hager with 13, and Abi Ramsey with 11. Jenni Benningfield and Carla Thomas each had seven rebounds to lead the Commodores, while Dee Davis had five assists. Larissa Kulcsar was the only Gamecock to score in double figures with 12 points.
For the game, Vanderbilt shot 41.7% from the field, compared 26.9% for South Carolina. For the Commodores, it was a tale of two halves, as they shot only 30% in the first half, but improved to 53.3% in the second half. South Carolina, however, shot under 28% in the first half, and 25.9% in the second. Vanderbilt won the battle of the boards 40-39 and had fewer turnovers with 17 compared to 25 for South Carolina.
Vanderbilt's opponent in the first round of the SEC Tournament will be Kentucky at 8 p.m. Thursday.
Coach Balcomb: I think the biggest thing I was proud of was our effort at the start of the second half. At halftime we talked about rebounding. They had a lot of second chance opportunities that they converted on. We tried to limit them to one shot. We tried to stop fouling, and I think we did a much better job, and that loosened up our offense, and we went on a 16-1 run at the start of the second half, and it was all created off our defense. Then we could relax on offense instead of being tight on offense like we were in the first half.
The Press: Coach, what's your experience in playing on another team's senior day? Is it something you dread?
Coach Balcomb: I don't generally like it, but it can go either way for you. Some kids are real emotional and have a tough start because of that. Other kids aren't, and it gets them fired up to compete harder for their seniors. So you never know. I don't know their players, so I don't know how they're going to react.
At Vanderbilt what I do, and what I did at Xavier before I got there, I do senior day after the game because I don't want to deal with the emotions that they go through, trying to figure out who's going to act like what, and whether they can handle that. I don't want my players starting a game with tears in their eyes or anything like that, so I've always done it afterwards. I'm more worried about our senior night probably than our opponents'.
The Press: Coach, what did you consider to be keys to the game, and how do you feel you did on each of them?
Coach Balcomb: Transition defense was important because this was one of the only teams in the country that we play that runs on misses AND makes, as we do at Vanderbilt, and we knew we had to get back in transition. I thought we did a good job of that, but there were two times in the first half when we didn't, and we fixed that. Other things were rebounding, and we ended up out-rebounding them by one. And then on offense we wanted to keep attacking and running and wearing them down, and I think that happened in the middle of the second half, where we were just wearing them down because we were attacking and had them in our tempo all night.
The Press: You didn't seem to get hurt by the big people on the inside and forced them to hit the outside shot.
Coach Balcomb: I thought their post players were very good, and coming into the game I knew that we wanted to choke down with our guards because they like to dribble it in the post, and we got a lot of deflections when they were in there with their backs to the basket, taking it out of their hands, and that was our guards choking down on the ball. Where they hurt us the most was driving from the high post, and we knew they were going to do that, but I did not think we did a good job covering the high post drive, and that's how they got to the free throw line a lot.
The Press: Did you make any adjustments for the second half, or were you just getting back to what you wanted to do in the first place?
Coach Balcomb: I think it was a matter of mentality, of getting these kids-- they were playing again how we used to play, which was trying not to lose, knowing that this was an important game for us to win instead of playing to win-- so we were very tight on offense and shot like 30% at halftime, and we shoot the ball much better than that.
So what we tried to re-focus on was forgetting the first half, starting over with what our game plan was and that was getting deflections and turnovers and having our defense not put the pressure on our offense to score every time. We weren't getting the job done on the defensive end or checking out. They had second chance points and traditional 3-point plays, and that caused our offense to be very tight because we felt like every time down, we had to score because we weren't holding them. So we just got back to what we had talked about, what we had really tried to do, and I think we did that
The Press: What's your take on South Carolina's turnaround, from making the Elite Eight two years ago to struggling now?
Coach Balcomb: My first answer would be "Jocelynn Penn." I think she made a huge difference in this team from last year to this year. She was one of the best players in the country. She attracted so much in the high post and the low post that your guards, Morrone and Ciocan and those guys, could have open looks on the outside because you had that dominant, middle-running post player. They got tons of points in transition because she was the fastest post player in the country, and she could also score in the halfcourt, so she attracted a lot of things. I think that's a huge difference, losing her because she was such a big part of the their success.
Photo of #50 Carla Thomas by WhitneyD for VandyMania.com.