VU Women Survive Alabama 85-76

Six Commodores scored in double figures as Vanderbilt opened the SEC season with a 85-76 road victory at Alabama. The Dores were led by Jen Risper with 17 points and Tina Wirth with a double double with 15 points and 10 rebounds. Freshman Ericka Russell led all scorers with 25 points for the Crimson Tide.

TUSCALOOSA, AL--Coming off two losses in the final games on the non-conference schedule, the Dores got off to a sizzling start in their first SEC game of the season. Although Alabama got on the scoreboard first, Vanderbilt soon took over the lead at 9-7 on a 3-pointer by Merideth Marsh.

Then for the rest of the half, the Dores continued to build their lead by shooting 63% from the field while holding the Crimson Tide to just 25% shooting, and forcing 10 Alabama turnovers while only committing five themselves. In all, it added up to a 25-point half-time lead at 47-22.

Anybody who's been following Alabama women's basketball over the past few years couldn't be blamed for thinking, "New coach, same old Alabama." After all, Alabama finished 1-14 in the SEC in the 2007-2008 season, and lost two games to Vanderbilt last season by an average margin of 37 points. At the end of season, Alabama fired Stephany Smith after her third season and hired Wendell Hudson, who was the first black scholarship athlete at Alabama back in the 1970s.

But trailing by 25 points at halftime, it looked like Alabama was destined to continue along the same familiar path of futility that has characterized the Alabama program over the past few seasons.

Hudson, however, had different ideas when he talked to his team at halftime.

"I just think the biggest thing was we had to convince them that the first half was not the same team that I've been watching now for 15 games," he said after the game. "What's different now is that we started playing in the conference, and I think that's a mental hurdle that this team had to get over.

"At halftime, we kind of convinced them that 'You belong here, you belong here, you should be here, and you've got to think that you're supposed to be here.'"

Coming out of the locker room, the Tide missed two of their first three shots, allowing Vanderbilt to take their biggest lead of the night at 26 points at 51-25 on a layup by Tina Wirth.

But then over the next five minutes, Alabama made nine straight shots, including four 3-pointers to cut the Vanderbilt lead to just 11 points at 59-48. When the Tide finally missed a shot, they got the offensive rebound, and another 3-pointer from Ericka Russell trimmed the lead to single digits at 59-51.

"I think [Alabama] took care of the basketball much better in the second half," said Vanderbilt Head Coach Melanie Balcomb. "Even when we played good defense, they didn't turn it over. They made us play defense for a long time, and then they crashed the boards."

By this time, the handful of Vanderbilt fans at the game and those following the game over the radio or on the Internet might have been remembering the big lead that Vanderbilt squandered in the last home game at Notre Dame and started to fear the worst.

But a layup by Hannah Tuomi midway through the half, a pair of free throws by Jence Rhoads, and then a jumper by Rhoads stemmed the tide and for another five minutes, the Dores were able to maintain the lead between 12-14 points.

However, once again the Alabama shots started falling, as the Tide connected seven of their next eight shots from the field to cut the lead to just four points at 78-74 with 1:56 left in the game.

"They never quit; they played hard, they had great energy, and we couldn't stop them from scoring," said Balcomb. "The biggest thing was it was kind of like a football game; we played defense for too many minutes. Time of possession killed us, and check-outs. They had 25 points on second chance offensive rebounds."

But in the remaining two minutes of the game, the Dores, especially Jen Risper, stepped up. She sank a couple of baskets on driving layups, then grabbed a key offensive rebound and attacked the basket again, earning a trip to the free throw line. She hit the first to give Vanderbilt a 9-point lead with 42-seconds left.

"I just kept thinking, we've got to keep attaching them, we can't have the mindset 'Play not to lose,'" said Risper. "If we start playing tight and scared that they're coming back, we are going to lose that game, so I just tried to keep a mentality, keep atttacking them and staying aggressive."

Finally, the clock struck midnight for Alabama. A pair of made free throws by Rhoads with 30 seconds left gave the Dores an 11-point lead at 85-74, and from that point on, the Tide managed only a single basket with 12 seconds left for the final score of 85-76.

Despite the second half scare, there were some bright spots for Vanderbilt. Jence Rhoads scored a career-high 12 points, dished out seven assists with only one turnover, and was a perfect 6-6 from the free throw line, "She's been much more aggressive," said Balcomb. "I told her yesterday she's had the two best practices she's had since the beginning of the season, and it's great to have her back with that kind of energy and enthusiasm."

Also, Vanderbilt had a balanced scoring attack with six players in double figures, led by Risper with 17 points. Wirth added 15, followed by Marsh with 13, Tuomi and Rhoads with12, and Chanel Chisholm with 11.

Next Vanderbilt returns home to face the Tennessee Lady Vols at Memorial Gym on Sunday afternoon at 2p.m. The game will be televised on CSS, and tickets are still available.

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