VU Takes Defense to Heart

Hearts and Valentines Day go hand in hand. And Vanderbilt's Thursday night "Pink Out" accentuated the warm fuzzy feeling of heartfelt community care. But there are other characterizations associated with heart - like determination and commitment. These are words describing a Commodore team poring passion into defense, and finding different ways to win in the SEC.

Vanderbilt was down by six in a slow tempo first half against Kentucky, but pulled out a trapping and man-to-man defense for the 66-49 win. Kentucky was not feeling the love, and neither have most opponents.

There's no warm and fuzzy when Liz Sherwood nails a double block on an overwhelmed Alabama shooter, when Jen Risper's quick hands steal 73 balls for the season, when Jessica Mooney, Meredith Marsh and Jence Rhoads harass guards to the point of exhaustion or when Tina Wirth dares driving players to make her day and run over her. She gets the charge, they get the foul, and the team gets fired up. And big-hearted Hannah Tuomi uses her 6-0 frame to power on the inside with a work ethic that reflects her parents' creed - "don't expect anybody to give you anything. You have to take it."

These are the mature Dores, albeit a young team who learned hard lessons from early season Old Dominion and Colorado losses. Hungry to prove they were better than that, these athletic defenders got their game on and intimidated tough opponents Florida and Georgia with aggressive play inside and out. Now 19-6, 8-2 SEC, 25th-ranked Vanderbilt is creating offense with a single-minded purpose to stop opponents' ball movement.

Junior Jen Risper is a superior defensive guard whose up-tempo attacking style was credited by Head Coach Melanie Balcomb as winning the Kentucky game for Vanderbilt. Jen said the team has changed considerably, a point made evident by Thursday's win. "The first thing that comes to mind is growth. We've taken more pride and effort. Before we wouldn't execute our defensive game plan. We're working hard every single day, and honestly we're a completely different team than we were the first half of our season."

Desire is a key motivator, said Assistant Coach Vicky Picott, who collaborates with Assistant Coach Lisa Cermingnano on defensive patterns.

"They're hungry. They have to dig down for that hunger. Defense is all heart and determination. We can't teach them that," she acknowledges. "We can teach them about spots and where to be and how to move your feet, but when it comes down to it, you have to be determined. This team is so committed. They don't want to get beat one- on-one. They have a lot of ownership and accountability for their defense."

Vanderbilt uses a unique match-up zone in a conference full of basic zone defenses. Vicky explains, "The basic zone says 'you have your spot and that's the spot you play.' We play areas but we also find people to match up with. It's a zone with man-to-man principles."

Nowhere does defense get more physical than the charging foul. Tina Worth, self taught at the skill with an unnatural ability to hold her position while 150 pounds or more of bone and muscle crash into her, says "it's fun. It's a thing you learn how to do when you see someone driving, and see that this girl is not going to stop. You just stand there even if she's coming full speed. You just take it full square in the chest and just slide out." She reassures, "It doesn't hurt at all."

Unselfish and unyielding, there is no one unsung hero on defense, Vicky says. Defense is a total team effort, five players working it all the time.

"Tina draws the charges down low. It works all together. Jen Risper and Jess Mooney are the ones making these people charge. They're creating such havoc and the guard is trying so hard to get away from them and then they run into Tina. But she has to be smart and get out of the lane to get charges, and Tina is the best at it," Vicky states.

Teammates commend Jessica for annoying ball handlers to the extreme. "When she gets in the game, she can change it really fast. She makes the point guards unsure about what they do," Tina says with admiration. "They second guess 'can I make this pass, can I cross?' The coaches really challenged her to be the best defensive player on the team and she stepped up to that."

Pressure tactics from a quick Jessica and agile Jen are keys to dominating defense. Jen is relentless in attacking the ball, an attribute leading to near achievement of a personal goal - leading the SEC in steals. She is now tied with Georgia's Ashley Houts with 73. She anticipates where others react and stuns opponents with rapid footwork and hand movement. Jen explains that dictating play is an internal desire. "Steals are an areas where I can help the team to get offense off our defense. You have to want that intensity. A lot of defense is wanting to get the rebound and getting the hustle play. It's a lot about what's on the inside and your heart and what you want."

The athleticism of the team is aided by the strong-armed post play and hook shots of Hannah Tuomi, the maturing freshman from Colorado. "I think the first half of the year I was really unsure about what was going on so I had to take it all in and understand what the coaches wanted," Hannah said. "Once I caught on to everything I was learning, I got better from there. It's knowing that when I do something I'm doing it right. Even if I don't, I can get it back on the next play. It's mainly a confidence thing. If I get yelled at, it's not the end of the world. I can always do better next time."

Hannah's strength and gung-ho attitude is evident in the heat of the battle, even in practice where she has injured a trio of practice players. "I really do knock people around and don't realize it. The biggest thing I bring to the team is my aggressiveness. I just go out there and get after it. I work real hard and try my best." And she really did feel awful about gouging a practice player's eye.

Next up are the current No.1-ranked Lady Vols for Sunday's sold-out 2:30 p.m. contest in Memorial Gym. What can the Dores' do to stop Tennessee, a team on the rebound from a 16-point loss to LSU?

"Our team defense is the answer," Tina said. "Obviously they're all great players but I think we're a better team and that's' what it's going to take to win the game. Everybody talks about how Candace Parker is the best player in the country, but a single player can never beat a great team. We're going to do our jobs together. Our coaches will give us a great game plan and we're confident and committed to that, and we're going to execute it."

Tina puts the team's focus on defense in perspective: "This year we're taking pride in our defense. If we don't come out scoring offensively from the start, we don't worry because our defense is keeping us in the game and is winning games for us now. The main thing is it's important to us. It's just a commitment for all five players on the floor to make our defense effective and get stops with it. Defense is heart and effort and we're concentrating on that."

The Dores have proven they can defend - and to no one's surprise, they can score. Top Stories