The game was close only for the first few minutes. The score was tied at 2-2, then Vanderbilt began to pull away, first slowly, and then by leaps and bounds. At 13:30 mark of the first half, Vanderbilt led 17-8, which proved to be the last single digit lead of the night.
But then Commodore defense completely smothered the Rhode Island offense and didn't allow another field goal for more than nine minutes. Just before Chrys Washington finally broke the long drought for URI, the Vanderbilt lead had ballooned to 30 points at 41-11. In the last few minutes of the half, the teams traded baskets, and the teams headed to locker room with Vanderbilt leading 54-24.
The second half was a mirror image of the first half. For the first five minutes traded baskets and free throws, and five minutes into the half, the Commodores still held a 30-point lead at 62-32.
Then Vanderbilt went on a 38-0 run which included a little of everything, including 3-pointers from Ramsey, Stringfield and Davis, an old-fashioned 3-point play from Earley, fast break layups by sophomore forward Jenn Hall and Davis, and nine of nine from the free throw line.
When the damage was done, Vanderbilt held the biggest lead of the night at 92-38 with 6:40 remaining in the game. By that time, sophomore guard Katie Antony was the Vanderbilt only starter left in the game, and then she left the game, too.
For the rest of the game, the lead stayed in the low 50s. With 3:42 left in the game, a jumper by junior post Nicole Jules put the Commodores at the century mark with 100-48, and when the final buzzer sounded, Vanderbilt claimed the 108-53 victory.
For the game, Vanderbilt shot 62.5% from the floor while holding Rhode Island to 34.6%. The Commodores were sizzling from behind the arc, connecting on 12 of 18 of their 3-point shots for 66.7%, while holding the Rams to just two 3-pointer for game on 11 attempts (18.2%). Both teams were excellent from the free throw line, with Vanderbilt shooting 84.2% (16 of 19) and Rhode Island shooting 93.8% (15 of 16).
Vanderbilt held a slight edge on the boards with 29 rebounds compared to 27 for Rhode Island, but won the turnover battle decisively, with 17 turnovers to 30 for the Rams. Fifteen Rhode Island turnovers came on steals by Vanderbilt. Ten different Vanderbilt players were credited with steals, led by Stringfield with three.
With the victory, Vanderbilt advances to the championship game of the tournament. The opponent will be Siena, who defeated UT-Martin 60-57. The consolation game featuring Rhode Island and UT-Martin will begin at 2 p.m., with the championship game following immediately.
First, Vanderbilt Head Coach Melanie Balcomb answered questions from the press.
The Press: Was 3-point shooting a priority in practice this week?
Coach Balcomb: Yeah, we spent a lot more time. Our 3-point shooting had not been good, especially at Savannah State. They gave us the 3s and just packed it in on Carla, and we never hit 'em, so they stayed packed in. So we worked a lot on shooting the three, especially out of transition. And, as you saw, they packed it in, we hit 3s, and then they had to come out and play. And then the second ten minutes of the first half, we went to Carla and Ashley. It opened up everything inside, so that was really nice to see. Big improvement from the last game.
And overall, that's what we just talked about in the locker room, we made a lot of changes from last game after watching film and practicing, and then they took it to the game. I was really impressed with the changes that we made because we did not play well at Savannah State, and we're not happy with a lot things we did.
The Press: What other changes besides the 3-point shooting?
Coach Balcomb: Our defensive pressure. I think we did a much better job getting out on the shooters. A key tonight was #4, who was shooting 60-something percent from three, and she went 0 for 6. Also, we did a much better job in transition, in our break, our decision making. Just being ready to play, being the player on the catch, our body language and things, we really struggled against Savannah. Also taking care of the basketball was one of our keys, and we turned the ball over a lot against their aggressive pressure and traps, and tonight the pressure and the traps did not hurt us. We only had 17 turnovers, and a lot of that was in our post game. Our posts had a lot of the turnovers because they got doubled and didn't do a good job against the doubles, which we've also been working on. That's one of the things we still need to improve on.
The Press: You got Cherish some time to showcase herself and. . .
Coach Balcomb: Cherish has been working harder in practice, and when she maintains that work ethic, she can really help us. She's getting in better shape and working harder, and that's translating into more success in the games.
The Press: A couple of seasons ago you said that you had the kind of a team that wasn't going to win by big margins. This team now in three games seems to keep playing intensity for the entire game even when they get way ahead.
Coach Balcomb: This is our third year here, and that's one of the things we've been stressing, is good teams get a lead and just maintain and exchange baskets, and great teams are able to keep that point spread even when they sub. And we need to keep working on our depth and maintaining intensity when we do sub, and not letting the lead go down. We talked at halftime about winning the second half instead of exchanging baskets and going even the second half and the game finishing the same point spread. And as you see, we did a good job. We were just talking about that. It was 54-24, then it was 54-29. So we maintained the same in the second half as we did in the first, and, yes, that's something that we've been talking about for two and a half years, and now you have players that start to not just establish your philosophy, but start to think more like the people they play for. They start to become more of a reflection of the coaches, and that's something that we do stress a lot.
The Press: Do you worry about not having been challenged yet this year, that you guys might get hit some trouble in some games down the road?
Coach Balcomb: No, I think every game on our schedule is going to get tougher and tougher, and I think that also we're going to go on the road, and the teams are going to be tough. When you schedule, you have to be careful. You have to be ready. We start three sophomores, so we're still very young, and I know it doesn't seem that way because a lot of them got a lot of experience last year, but you have to be careful. We like to play at home for a while, then get our feet wet on the road. Now we'll go out after this tournament and get on the road and play some very good teams. So as you see, our schedule will be get tougher and tougher until we reach the SEC, and then it gets very tough.
The Press: Is that by design - that it escalates in toughness?
Coach Balcomb: Yeah, especially when you're young. We tried to do that. When you're young, you don't want to just throw in all these big time games. As our program gets further along with us here longer in the system and our players with more experience, then we'll start to play some bigger conference teams earlier in the season like you see some of the teams doing.
The Press: How about Nicole in her first regular season action?
Coach Balcomb: She's feeling better. Again, her knee is always day-to-day, and her conditioning has a lot to do with that, and so usually she can give you spurts, and today she got to play a lot longer and has been practicing well. So she got a lot of minutes today, and I thought she did a good job in those minutes that she got. She was very productive.
The Press: What is it with her knee? Is it a tendonitis issue or . . ?
Coach Balcomb: You'd have to talk to the training room about that. I don't want to say the wrong thing.
The Press: Dee had nine assists and no turnovers.
Coach Balcomb: I think that's something that Dee's been really focused on. I think she really wants to cut down on her turnovers, and that turnover to assist ratio. I think she's taking care of the ball much better. But Dee is a totally different player from last year, and I can't tell you how proud I am of the changes that she's made from her freshman year to her sophomore year and the coachability and the work ethic. To be honest with you, we're a much better team right now because Dee's a much better player. And she's going to have the ball in her hands 90% of the time, and she's going to play 39 minutes a game, and that's a really important position for us. And that's where last year we struggled and were rotating people, and she got hurt. We played four point guards in every game, and that was not a good situation to be in. And so this year we're in a much better situation. And what's nice is, not only does she have confidence, but all her teammates play better because they have so much more confidence in her, and you can see it on their faces. And that's exciting for us.
Coach Balcomb left, then senior guard Abi Ramsey and sophomore guard Cherish Stringfield took their places at the interview table.
The Press: Coach says this week that you really focused on picking up the 3-point game, especially in transition.
Abi: Yeah. Lately our posts have really been carrying us and scoring the majority of our points, and it really showed up in our last game against Savannah State. We had no inside-out game, and people just double in on the post, and the guards just weren't shooting well at all. So that was a big focus, improving on our threes, and make someone come out and play us so we could that inside play for tonight.
The Press: Cherish, you really made the most of your minutes today, a career night for you. What was going right for you out there?
Cherish: I just tried to take what we do in practice every day to the game so that it just feels normal now. It's not forced or anything. Everything that we do every day in practice, we just try to carry it over to the game. When you work hard in practice, it makes game time that much easier.
The Press: Coach says by design you're working your way up to tougher games as you get closer to the SEC because you guys are so young. Do you think that's helping the young team get used to being on the court?
Cherish: Oh yeah, most definitely. I think it helps a lot.
Abi: I think it's a big confidence builder, not only for the young ones, but also for the old ones. You get into the flow quicker and confidence comes around earlier in the season.
Cherish: And our next couple of games are going to be stepped up a little bit, so I think it's transitional to get us ready for SEC play.
The Press: Is there any worry that you aren't getting challenged early, that you might hit a wall when you get a tough opponent?
Abi: Not so much because no one wants to peak early. And this is the way we've done it for years. We're used to it, and we are a very young team. And I think the way that the way we have it designed, we'll be meeting NC State, teams like that, after Christmas and that's right around the time we want to peak. So I think the slow transition, being able to have more rotation in these games right now, everyone getting the experience, is probably the best thing for us.
The Press: Abi, it seems like this team is doing a really good job of maintaining intensity. Is that how it seems to you? Is that something you explicitly think about?
Abi: Most definitely, and it's re-iterated in every huddle and every timeout, too. Coach is always like "Don't let up any!" She has a quote that she says - good players show up for-what is it? (Looks to Cherish for help.)
Cherish: Good players show up . . something (They both laugh.)
Abi: Whatever, the point is-
Abi and Cherish (in unison): GREAT PLAYERS SHOW UP EVERY GAME.
Abi: --is the point. So that's our focus right now, maintaining and not playing on the lower level of some teams we play.
The Press: 15 steals for you guys tonight.
Abi: Oh, that was great because our defense is key to our success right now, and it just shows intense we are throughout the game. That's a great statisic compared to 108 points. That's just as big as having that big a margin of points.
* * * * *
Photos copyright 2004 by WhitneyD for VandyMania.com.