Peaking at the right time: Dores oust LSU, 78-66

NASHVILLE-- Red-hot Vanderbilt won its seventh straight game Saturday, as it ran past the LSU Lady Tigers 78-66 in the semifinals of the SEC Tournament. The Commodores (23-7) advanced to the championship game Sunday and will meet Georgia, which upset the Tennessee Lady Vols in Saturday's other semifinal game.

NASHVILLE-- Red-hot Vanderbilt won its seventh straight game Saturday, as it ran past second-seeded LSU 78-66 in the semifinals of the SEC Tournament. The Commodores (23-7) advanced to the championship game Sunday and will meet Georgia, which upset the Tennessee Lady Vols in Saturday's other semifinal game.

Jenni Benningfield paced the Vanderbilt attack with 20 points, but four other Commodores scored in double figures. Carla Thomas contributed 12, Abi Ramsey added 11, and Hillary Hager and Ashley Earley each had 10. Hager's 11 rebounds gave her a double double for the game. Seimone Augustus led all scorers with 22 points for the No. 15 Lady Tigers.

LSU scored the first points of the game on a jumper by Hanna Biernacke, but, as it turned out, that would be the only lead that the Lady Tigers would hold.

Vanderbilt promptly answered with a 3-pointer by Ramsey off a fast break, and the Commodores never lost the lead after that. By the middle of the first half, Vanderbilt had established a 10-point lead, which ultimately grew to 15 points at 45-30 when Ramsey sank a pullup jumped just before the halftime buzzer.

Early in the second half, the Vanderbilt lead reached 18 points at 52-34 with 17:31 left in the game, but then the Lady Tigers began to mount a comeback. Over the next five minutes, a 13-2 run fueled by LSU fast breaks and Vanderbilt fouls and turnovers cut the comfortable Vanderbilt lead back to just seven points at 54-47. A jumper from Benningfield stopped the bleeding, and the Commodores inched the lead back up to 14 points at 61-47 with 10:29 remaining.

But once again the Lady Tigers made a run, and this time cut the lead down to just five points at 65-60 with 5:56 left. But from that point on, the Commodores out-rebounded LSU 7-1 and were a perfect 10-for-10 from the free throw line.

A 3-pointer by Hager with three minutes left gave Vanderbilt a 12-point lead at 74-62, and the Commodores began milking the shot clock, even risking shot clock violations to take away LSU's opportunities off fast breaks or rebounds of bad shots. During the slowdown, the Commodores incurred two shot clock violations, but in return, the time remaining to the Lady Tigers' time remaining for a comeback dwindled to less than a minute.

LSU began fouling intentionally to get the ball back. First Thomas was sent to the line and sank both ends of the one-and-one; then Dee Davis sank both free throws to put the Commodores back up by 12 with 0:36 left. LSU attempted a couple of more shots, but neither fell, so when the final buzzer sounded, Vanderbilt claimed a 78-66 victory.

Vanderbilt shot 46.6% from the field, but only 21.4% (3-of-14) from 3-point range. LSU shot 38.6% from the field and also shot poorly from behind the arc at 25% (3-of-12). The Commodores won the battle of the boards decisively with 44-28. LSU took better care of the ball with 18 turnovers compared to 23 for Vanderbilt.

The victory completed a season sweep for Vandy over LSU, as the Commodores had already defeated the Lady Tigers 61-55 back on Feb. 19 in Baton Rouge. In the other semifinal game, Andy Landers' Lady Bulldogs upset top-seeded Tennessee 68-66 in overtime to also advance to the finals.

Sunday's championship game between Georgia and Vanderbilt is set for 3 p.m. CT. For the first time in the history of the tournament, none of the top four seeds advanced to the championship game-- so for the first time ever, both teams in the championship game will be playing their fourth game in four days.

Only once in SEC Tournament history (1997) has a team that played on Thursday won the tournament, but it is now assured of happening again Sunday. Tickets to the final are still available.


Afe Coach Balcomb: I think the key was we came out very confident and mentally ready to play tonight, just like we have in the past couple of games in this tournament. We get off to a good start, and confidence really helps us. I think also to get a big lead like that, sometimes it's harder to play, especially in the second half with a big lead. They made a lot of great runs, and we knew they'd keep coming after us, and they're so athletic and really turned up their defense. But we did a great job of keeping our composure and then making a mini-run right back at them. And a lot of that, again I feel like I keep saying the same thing, but it's our mental focus and our confidence right now. It's the best it's been all season.

The Press: Coach, it seemed like the team was able to get a lot of easy baskets off backcuts and screen and rolls. Is that part of your plan, or did you think that LSU was very confused by what you did offensively?

The Press: No, that was part of our plan because they deny hard. They denied our wings and denied our posts, so we tried to go backdoor on them because we had seen that they denied and took those passes away, and they're good at stepping in the passing lanes and making steals and running off the turnovers, so we really wanted to take some of that pressure away and beat them on the backdoor cuts early if we could.

The Press: Jenni, talk about your performance. In the first game it was Carla who had the big night in the post, and you didn't have as many points, but tonight you stepped up and scored a lot of points down in the post.

Jenni: Well, points don't really mean anything to me. My teammates got me the ball in a position where I could score within the offense. I felt like tonight I really let the game come to me, and I was able to do some of the things that I haven't been doing in the last couple of weeks. It's not about points. It doesn't matter if I score zero. If we get the W, it doesn't matter, and tonight it just happened to be a night where I did get some points, but it's all because my teammates got me the ball in a position where I could score.

The Press: Dee, can you talk about what you're feeling right now. You'll be playing four games in four days. Are you feeling mostly adrenaline now or are you feeling well-conditioned?

Dee: She conditions us pretty good. I think our team can stand all this. I'm fine really. It's easier than practice.

Coach Balcomb: It's supposed to be easier than practice. That's my philosophy.

The Press: Coach, coming into the week, you talked about y'all's depth. You played nine folks tonight. I think seven folks scored for you in the first ten or eleven minutes of the game. How big has that been and how big do you expect that to be tomorrow?

Coach Balcomb: Well, I talked to the team about that. I feel very confident playing more players more minutes than I did, and they know that. I think it's not amount of minutes they play; it's what they do with the minutes. Jenn Hall played a great couple of minutes. Erica Grimaldi again played a great couple of minutes. It's what they do with those minutes, and they're so focused and ready on the bench to come in and give us good minutes. The thing is, our starters, Jenni and Carla and Hillary and Abi and Dee now, they're playing so well that it's hard to get them minutes at this point. They know that, and I think that they're ready to go, and I think that's been an advantage, and I think that mentally it's going to be an advantage tomorrow because we have the confidence to go to our bench if we need to.

The Press: Coach, you're on a seven-game winning streak that started at LSU. You beat LSU tonight for the seventh straight win. You've got to hope that it doesn't end tomorrow.

Coach Balcomb: I hope it doesn't.

The Press: Coach, can you talk about the matchup problems that you give both LSU and Auburn considering they're higher seeds in this tournament, and now you've swept them for the entire year.

Coach Balcomb: A lot of it is matchups. I believe that it's a lot of our strengths against their weaknesses. It's a combination of things. I think we've been able to go inside on them a lot. Our post game is very important. We go inside high low, and I think also they don't do as well against zones, and we really back it in on them and try to stop the penetration. Most of the teams they've lost to play some zone. But they have some advantages in their athleticism and quickness at positions, too, at the guards spots. So it's some strengths and some weaknesses, but for us the matchup is pretty good.

The Press: Coach, can you talk about the little skid in February, and you rebounded with this winning streak and now you're in the title game. What does it mean for this team to be at this point right now in the season?

Coach Balcomb: Well, obviously you don't want to be playing your best basketball back in January when we had the skid. You want to play your best basketball in March. You just want to keep improving and getting better. We've been through a lot this season adversity-wise, and I always think those teams have an advantage in the end. We've had a lot players out, where we didn't have our normal role, our rotation. At that point, we didn't have a rotation, we didn't have roles. We didn't until the end of February because we were getting kids back off injuries, and we've had all kinds of things go on, so it's made us deeper. I think we're stronger in the end. We talked about as those things were going on, and this is how we wanted it and thought it would be. We just remained positive through everything, and I think we persevered a lot this year, and it's paying off for us now.

The Press: Coach, you talked about the matchups against Auburn and LSU. What do you see your advantages as being matchup-wise tomorrow against Georgia?

Coach Balcomb: Oh, I don't know. I've been so focused on LSU I'll have to switch gears here, but again, there's going to be transition D and there's going to be stopping penetration. Their guards really make that team run, and we really have to get out and contain the basketball. And we have to stop their penetration and their drive. And we have to do what we did tonight; we need to rebound. And that was one of the biggest keys tonight was checking out, not giving them second shots, and beating them on the boards 44-28. That was a really important stat for us.

The Press: Coach, can you talk about the last couple of the game. Hillary hit a big 3 to give Vanderbilt a 12-point lead, then you had a shot clock violation, a timeout, they scored, then there was another shot clock violation. What was going on during that span of time?

Coach Balcomb: We wanted to use the whole clock.

The Press: And so you were willing to take the violation if that's what happened? (Coach and players giggle.)

Coach Balcomb: Yeah, we did. We wanted to use the clock, and we didn't want to turn it over. We had the lead. I would much rather shoot two shot clock violations than make a pass and turn it over and have them go down in transition and score. So we were real careful and made sure we didn't take any bad shots and that we did everything you could ask. We didn't get a shot, and that's OK in that situation. With that lead, with that amount of time, it's OK. A couple of times before that we had forced some things, and I had got on them pretty hard, so then they kept holding on to the ball a little more.

The Press: Your opponent obviously faces the same problem tomorrow. Would you talk about the grind of one more game within 24 hours and this time for the championship?

Coach Balcomb: Like Dee was saying earlier, I think our team is in very good shape right now. We do a lot of fullcourt in practice, and we are very very competitive right now in practice, and my philosophy is to make practices - they're hard, and they're long. We have obviously shortened them down the stretch here, but I think most of my players would much rather be in a game than practice. (Looking at the players.) Am I wrong? I think we're just confident. I think we're prepared, and I think it's really mental right now, and we're in the right place mentally.

The Press: Coach, how much is the run you're on tied in to Dee's maturity at the point?

Coach Balcomb: A lot of it has to do with Dee getting more minutes, and Dee getting to play through some of the mistakes during that spell. For a freshman point guard to come in and earn the spot and do really well and then get a stress fracture right in the middle of the season and then miss a month and a half-- can't practice, can't work on the things we're teaching-- and then you throw her in in the middle of the SEC against quicker, faster players, stronger and bigger, than she's ever played against in her life. We just had to get to a point where she'd played through her mistakes and gained confidence and experience, and as she has done that, yes, we have gotten better. It also helped that Jenni came back off her stress fracture and gave us a lot of leadership on the floor. And Jenni and Dee-- not just the experience, but they're in better shape. Even when they came back, the toughest part is that they were not in game shape, and when Dee was making mistakes and Jenni was making mistakes, a lot of it was because they were tired. And now they're in game shape.

The Press: Jenni, can you talk about having played in one championship will help, and what advice will you pass along?

Jenni: I think since the beginning of practice this year when we made team goals, that was obviously one of our goals was to win the SEC tournament. I remember the upperclassmen really explaining to the freshmen how important it is in the SEC tournament - we've made good runs in all four of my years that I've been here. We're just trying to tell them to take one game at a time, which we have done. We have to suck it up tomorrow, whether we're tired or not. This is what it's all about. Like coach said, we're so competitive in practice, it does make things easier. We work so well together, Dee all the way down to the last freshman, from the first person to the last person. We're ready for the game tomorrow. I don't think we're going to let anything get in the way of that. We've worked so hard, and we've been through ups and downs this entire year, and we're starting to peak right now, and we have all the confidence in the world right now, not only in ourselves, but in each other. I'm really excited about tomorrow, and I know they are, too, so we'll give it a shot.

The Press: Melanie, as far as the SEC tournament and winning this, what would this do in terms of seeding?

Coach Balcomb: Hopefully it would help. I'm hoping that beating ranked teams down the stretch like we have, finishing the season. I know they really look at how you finish, do you finish strong, and then going on this run, beating ranked teams and beating them on the road and then beating them on a neutral court. I think it speaks volumes, and I think we have a great strength of schedule, and it only gets better with each game we play in the SEC, so to me, the more games we could play in this tournament, the better seed we could get, because we're going to play better and better and higher ranked teams and be able to get a chance to prove ourselves and set us up and put us in a better position than we were last year.

The Press: You probably answered this earlier in the week, but LSU's coach and the players mentioned the fact that they thought you got energy from playing, if not on your homecourt in your hometown. How much of an advantage, if any, tomorrow is it in your opinion playing here in Nashville?

Coach Balcomb: I think the crowd's been great. I do think it's a comfort level, and I think more than anything though we have upperclassmen who have been successful here. Jenni and Hillary haven't lost a game in this gym. So I think there are a lot of good memories in the locker room, and there's a lot of positive things. When they get here, they do have a lot of energy, not just from the winning streak we have, but being in Nashville and having our fans and their families here. It is a boost. Top Stories