Sunday afternoon in Tuscaloosa brought back the memory of another Sunday afternoon four years ago in Melanie Balcomb's second season as head coach at Vanderbilt. Same gym, same sunny day, same sleeper buses to transport the team to and from Nashville, but very different results.
In February of 2004, when recently graduated seniors Dee Davis, Carla Thomas, and Caroline Williams were freshmen, the Commodores suffered a devastating loss to the Crimson Tide, Vanderbilt's third straight loss, to fall to 2-4 in the SEC and raising the spectre of missing the NCAA tournament at the end of the season.
But for that year's team, the loss proved to be a wakeup call, the impetus for making the changes that led to a 10-game winning streak that included four games in the SEC tournament to win the SEC tournament championship and carried the team to the Sweet 16.
Not only was this year's game at Alabama a very different game, with a dominant performance by the Dores, this year's team is at a very different stage of development. After a rigorous non-conference schedule including both solid wins and disappointing losses and two early SEC road losses to LSU and Tennessee, the Dores are solidly in third place in the SEC with a 7-2 record, equaling the team's best start since the SEC expanded to 12 teams in 1998.
After Sunday's game, Vanderbilt Head Coach Melanie Balcomb talked with VandyMania about the difference between the 2008 game in Tuscaloosa and the fateful game in 2004, as well as the mentality of her team and its development at this point during the season.
VM: If you didn't see the uniforms, it wouldn't have looked like a road game. Your team came out with a lot of energy and played well. Would you agree?
Coach Balcomb: Yeah, I think one of the things is at home we've been coming out really strong, and we talked about making sure we did the same thing on the road, that we didn't look different at home and on the road. We knew there wouldn't be a big crowd here, we knew it was about us and our own energy and our own enthusiasm to generate what we needed to do early on and intimidate right away. I think that's what we did. We did a great job with it.
VM: Was that the important thing coming into the game?
MB: We never have just one point of emphasis. That was one of them. Just making sure it was as big a game for us as it would be for them. It's a really important mentality right now. Statwise, on paper, everybody knew that this was a game that we should win, and great teams don't look at that. They look at themselves. They think about improving and getting better every game and not focusing on who they're playing. We're very mature right now for such a young team on the mental part. In February, it's all mental.
VM: Being here reminds me of a game several years when Dee and Carla and Caroline were freshmen and Jenni and Hillary were seniors. Ultimately it turned the season around, but it was a very different stage of development than for this year's team. Do you remember that game?
MB: I told them last year before the game, I told them about losing here and that I didn't have a great feeling in this place because I had lost here before. I didn't talk about what it did to our season, but I did talk about how we needed to take this game seriously. We're at a totally different point than we were back then. A lot of that has to do with I've been at Vanderbilt longer, and these are kids that we recruited, and they are now passing things on, from generation to generation. It makes things a lot easier. The kids know what to expect. Back then then didn't know what to expect, so everything was new. Everything we went through back then was very, very new.
VM: From here on, what are you looking for in the development of your team, what are things you're wanting to see happening over the next few weeks?
MB: Again, just taking one game at a time and working on improving and practicing at the level that we've been practicing. We've been really competing in practice still, from top to bottom, and with young players, you get that. There's competition every day. People are working very hard to try to get into the rotation here in February, and that says a lot for the kinds of kids that we have.
VU Insider: Head Coach Melanie Balcomb
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