Guards point way to Vandy victories

A triple threat to opponents, Vanderbilt uses the leadership of guards Jence Rhoads, Meredith Marsh and Jessica Mooney to drive, dish and shoot past the competition.

Jence Rhoads Bio
Jessica Mooney Bio
Merideth Marsh Bio

Jence Rhoads
Assistant Coach Lisa Cermingnano and Jence Rhoads. (VM/Sharon Harper)
When 5-7 Vanderbilt point guard Dee Davis graduated in 2007, the star senior left big shoes to fill. Stepping into them were 5'10" freshman Jence Rhoads, shoe size 11, who despite her towering frame, matches speed with basketball's quicker, more vertically challenged players.

In comparison, LSU's Erica White is 5-3, Tennessee's Shannon Bobbit is 5-4 and Georgia's Ashley Houts is 5-6. This size is more typical of a traditional point guard, but according to Vanderbilt Assistant Coach and point instructor Lisa Cermignano, Jence's stature is a stealth advantage.

"It's possible she might be the tallest point guard in the SEC. Her height is an advantage because she's helping lead our team in rebounding. She can be a size inside and outside. Jence's big but she moves really fast. She's got a quick first step. Some people don't realize how tall she is until she stands still for a moment."

Jence admits with a chuckle that her height is arguably beneficial as she gets low to compete. "Apparently, because Coach reminds me every day that I'm 5'10. I don't know that I use it all the time." When she raises her hands to defend, when she scouts the court over shorter competitors, taller is certainly better.

Quickly replacing a veteran who helped guide Vanderbilt to SEC titles and NCAA appearances was not realistic, Jence acknowledges. "I knew Dee had graduated and that the point guard spot was open; I wanted it, but I wasn't expecting it in any way."

Lisa said Jence has earned her starting position. "She's getting better everyday. She's just so explosive, so talented, and while there are moments of greatness and moments of youth, she's been very consistent at being a very good leader for this team at her age."

Her stats speak as well – with the Vanderbilt (17-6) 78-48 win over South Carolina Thursday, she dished 6 assists with one turnover – with 7 points and 5 rebounds. Already she has broken into the Top 100 nationally at No. 95 with a turnover/assist ratio of 1.5, a move up the chart that will climb as her ball protection improves.

Helping to guide the young floor leader is 5-9 shooting guard Meredith Marsh, a 3-point specialist who backed Dee at point last year, and reserve wing and point Jessica Mooney, a 5-8 offensive and defensive sensation who runs the court, full speed ahead. Meredith led Vanderbilt scorers against the Gamecocks with 12 points and 3-of-6 from 3-point range, and Jessica added 11 with one 3-pointer. The trio has helped lead Vanderbilt to its best SEC start since 1998 at 6-2 with Thursday's victory.

"Jess is probably the quickest person on our team; but Mer is so smart that she becomes as quick if not quicker because she reads the game so well," Lisa explains. "They all have their own types of quickness."

Jess Mooney
Vandy's Jessica Mooney looks to pass. (VM/Sharon Harper)
Jessica loves to run the point, and she does it with an enthusiasm that drives other Dores to play their best. "Just being able to push the ball, to distribute it to shooters, and forcing the defense to be on their heels – that keeps us moving up and down the court because I know my teammates can run with me."

Meredith freely offers advice from her point experience that Jence good-naturedly receives. "Mer knows every position of every play, and if you do something wrong, she'll be the first to let you know what you did. She obviously wants to be a coach when she's older," she says with a twinkle. "She'll give you pointers about where to pass it or what to look for in a certain play or the timing."

It's the versatility of these three makes for exciting play, Lisa adds. "You're showing three different types of point guards. Jence is a natural leader at the point. Mer is a natural leader at the point slash shooting guard. She has a little bit more to offer in different positions and Jess can handle the point and play the off guard so she brings an explosive defense to the team. Right now they're becoming pretty interchangeable which is kind of fun. We're constantly having two of them on the floor at the same time, which gives us an extra point guard on the floor. It helps things tremendously because we are so young," Lisa said.

Merideth Marsh
Vanderbilt's Merideith Marsh drives to the basket. (VM/Sharon Harper)
Merideth began to assume a new role when Coach Melanie Balcomb spoke to her before the season's start. "She said ‘you're one of the best shooters on the team and with Jence coming in, she's a solid point guard who can distribute the ball.' So when I'm in the game and Tina (Wirth) is in the game, we have two shooters who are threats on the outside and that creates more problems for defenses."

The sophomore's can-do attitude about the new role is a common thread as players swap in and out of positions to offer different looks to scouting opponents. "Mer is doing an unbelievable job playing without the ball, and she's never done that before," Lisa reveals. "It just makes us that much better. One of the reasons we're playing so well is that we are so unselfish. And we will play roles that aren't necessarily in our comfort zone."

As Jence learns to tackle the time constraints and pressures of being a student athlete in a challenging academic environment, she's also trying to learn new tricks. "Ball fakes – that's one of my goals," she says after a prompt from Jessica. "Everyone's been trying to teach me. Ball faking and changing speeds are two things I'm supposed to get. I'm slowly getting them I think."

The faster pace of collegiate action mirrors the expectations of a Vanderbilt point guard. She's learning leadership, both on the court and off.

"I always talk about how she and Hannah (Tuomi) are the most fearless on our team," Meredith said. "They always step in and do what Coach asks them. They have no questions, no concerns and just do what Coach says. Jence's done a great job, and as she continues to get better in her position, we're all going to get better."

Jence Rhoads looks to pass around South Carolina's Samone Kennedy. (VM/Sharon Harpter)

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