Women's Hoops: Kentucky press conference

<i>After Vanderbilt's 84-50 victory over Kentucky, the coaches and some of the players talked with the press. First, Vanderbilt Head Coach Melanie Balcomb took her turn answering questions.</i>

The Press: Coach, I hear you might have jinxed the team a little bit?

Coach Balcomb: Yeah, I feel bad because I've been on them about how things have been so good. The team has incredible chemistry off the floor. They care very much about each other. It's almost like things have been good, everybody's happy, but we were losing some games that we shouldn't lose, and I told them that the experience I've had is that it sometimes it takes something really bad to happen to find out what people are made of, and sometimes obstacles can be the best thing for a team. They should have no excuse, because everything's been so good. But it really isn't. We're not winning. It's like everybody's all happy and it's too good-- And now I feel bad saying all that stuff because then certainly something comes up. But now we get to find out what we're made of. It's a tough situation that happened today, but I think our team responded very very well.

The Press: Coach, how is Ashley feeling?

Coach Balcomb: I think she's in shock. She's the kind of a kid who thinks she's invincible, and I think we all feel that way, so I think we're all just kind of in shock. I don't think it's hit us because she's so counted on and she's so dependable, and she makes you feel like she's invincible. So I'm sure it hasn't hit her yet. Initially, she was just in a lot of pain, that was the biggest thing. it was very painful.

The Press: Any prognosis yet?

Coach Balcomb: No, you'd have to talk to our trainers about that.

The Press: Coach, can you talk about your team's intensity?

Coach Balcomb: I thought we came out ready to play. I thought we came out after halftime ready to play, and I think there was a much better intensity from the getgo of both. There have been some games this year we wished there wasn't a halftime because we don't come out strong. We don't come out aggressive, and I think that was something that was really nice to see today. We've talked a lot about it, but finally saw a change in it.

The Press: Did you feel like they took that intensity up a few notches after Mac went out?

Coach Balcomb: Definitely. I think our intensity level, our communication level increased. They rely on Mac so much for her leadership and her communication, and our #1 key in our game plan today was communication. And they were not communicating defensively. And we've been asking and asking them to. And then when Mac went out, there goes our communicator. She covers for everybody. She's such a strong leader that everybody feels like they don't have to lead, so what happened was now you saw leading and talking and especially being there for Erica. I can't tell you how many players were talking to her constantly in her ear, helping her, that I haven't seen all year. But they knew they had to now that Mac wasn't out there. Mac's such a great leader, it's almost like she becomes a crutch for everybody else.

The Press: Coming off two tough conference losses, are you satisifed with the way your team played? Do you think you're heading in the right direction now?

Coach Balcomb: Well, coaches are never satisified. There were plenty of times where the fans were screaming, and I was frustrated because we didn't execute the way I wanted us to. We got lucky and still scored. That's how you know coaches are just never satisfied. But I can tell you the biggest thing I was really proud of how they responded when our leader went down. If this is any sign of what kind of a team they can be, it really is a positive thing that happened today. I don't mean that -- sometimes when something bad happens, it brings out the best in people, and I think that's what we saw today.

The Press: Coach, not only with Mac going out, but also with Chantelle going out with two fouls, they actually lengthened the lead in the first half. What did they do right to do that?

Coach Balcomb: That was my worst nightmare. Mac goes down, and I don't think that's ever going to happen-- it's always in the back of your head "what if it did?" and your only other point guard's a walk-on who hasn't played much all year and then you have Chantelle get her two fouls, and then you're thinking, 'What else could happen?" And totally the opposite happened. Everybody stepped up. Everybody played more aggressive and took chances I have been begging them to take. We didn't sit back. We didn't hesitate. The tough part is to figure out what goes on in all these young women's heads when that happens.

The Press: Something like necessity being the mother of invention?

Coach Balcomb: (Laughs) Yeah. I told them in the locker room, sometimes you don't do what you have to do until you have to, until you're put in that position to do it. It's easier not to, and they were put in a position today where they had to, and they responded.

The Press: Looking at the past two games and what lies ahead, was this a must win situation?

Coach Balcomb: I felt it was as a coach in my first year in the SEC. I thought we had to win this game, just for the home court advantage alone. After you lose a home game, and we have the record we do at home, we have to keep that home dominance we have, and I thought that was very very important.

The Press: Can you talk about what Erica did or what you've seen in her limited game play or practice that might have tipped you that she'd rise up to the occasion?

Coach Balcomb: Erica's one of the toughest kids I've ever coached. She wants to do very, very well, almost wants to do too well. There's nobody tougher on the floor. We've had some very very very hard practices over the last two weeks, the hardest it's been since I've been here, and Erica has responded in those practices to the point where we were even thinking about maybe moving her to the 2-guard so that we could play her because we were watching to see who was responding in very aggressive, very physical practices preparing for the SEC after our first loss and our loss to Louisville. So she's responded really well in practice. It's just the confidence issue, being at the point and having to lead a team at a program like Vanderbilt. I think that's been the only thing holding her back -- she's as tough as nails.

The Press: Not to jinx it any further, but what's the plan after Erica -- if she gets in foul trouble or something?

Coach Balcomb: There is no plan. (Laughs ruefully.) If you've watched our team, there's not a lot of ball handlers out there. Who would be our third point guard? I used to joke with them in practice, and if I ever saw someone put it on the floor and do something well, or make a pass in a lot of the uptempo things we do where they're forced to be in that position because a number break, I'd go, "Yeah, you're our third point guard," and it's usually Chantelle. (Laughs.) She gets so nice and low on ball fakes, and I always yell that I can get Chantelle to do things on the perimeter that I can't get the guards to do. But I won't be as crazy as to go with Chantelle, but they're probably laughing now, going, "I wonder if Chantelle is going to be our third point guard?" It would have to be Hillary probably because she's strong and anytime today we had-- I just said, "Hillary, you come up and handle," and she has the confidence to handle the ball if need be.

The Press: Do you not think you could get by with Jenni at the point?

Coach Balcomb: Jenni Benningfield? No. Doesn't even play the guard position for us. She wouldn't have any idea what the guards do.

The Press: She played guard the past two seasons?

Coach Balcomb: Yeah, but in a totally different system. She doesn't know anything that we do and has not worked on any of it.

With all the questions answered, Coach Balcomb left the room, and Kentucky Head Coach Bernadette Mattox entered to take her turn.

The Press: Coach, when McElhiney went down, did you give any thought to turning up pressure on the backup point guard?

Coach Mattox: Obviously we couldn't play tonight. Look at the fouls. That fouls speaks for itself tonight. We couldn't play. 31 to 4 fouls? Kids got real timid. Every time you turned around, they were calling fouls which, unfortunately-- what do you do in that situation?

The Press: Were you prepared for a situation like this?

Coach Mattox: No one wants anybody to go down. You don't prepare for anything like that.We continued to play the way we play. We got into foul trouble, and the kids really started getting timid.

The Press: Is this something you're run into often this year?

Coach Mattox: No. No. 31 to 1? They go to the free throw line 31 times, we go 1? Never.

The Press: Do you feel like, though, when Mac is out and Chantelle is out with 2 fouls there was an opportunity missed there?

Coach Mattox: No, there was no opportunity. They have some good players on their team. I thought we went back and forth. Again, there go some more fouls-- my players got in foul trouble. I had to pull our players out and sit then down, so it's the same thing. I'm not taking anything away from Vandy; they played an outstanding game tonight. But we couldn't play our game tonight. They really disallowed us to play.

Coach Mattox left the room, the Vanderbilt junior forward Jenni Benningfield, freshman point guard Erica Grimaldi, and sophomore guard Abi Ramsey took their places at the table.

The Press: Erica, I know you've got to be used to going in either with Ashley, or instead of Ashley while she has a quick blow then coming back out. What was it like going out there knowing you were the last line of defense?

Erica: Well, I knew that my teammates were there for me, and they stepped up And everybody around me--it made me better because everybody was talking to me the whole game, and the coaches believed in me and the players believed in me. I don't know-- I've learned from Ashley Mac all season long, so I felt like I was confident going in there.

The Press: Coach talked about with Ashley going down and Chantelle getting two fouls, the rest of the players did what they had to do because they had to do it. Did you sense that?

Jenni: Yeah. Coach would ask us to change a defense or an offense, or just make adjustments during a game. We did that tonight. We did what they asked us to do, and we didn't think twice about it. We believed in what they were saying and in each other. We knew that everybody had to come out and do the things that we needed to do because Chantelle was out and Ashley was gone. But I think that everybody just stepped up, and Erica came in here, everybody was just so confident in her. Since Day 1, she's improved every day. I'm so proud of her because when she walked onto that court for the first time, she walked in there like -- I told her this after the game -- she walked in with so much confidence. That says a lot. She's learned a lot from Ash, but for her to come on the court and act confident and to play like she did is just incredible, and i think that says a lot about her and her work ethic.

The Press: Erica, were you surprised they didn't put any more defensive pressure on you than they did?

Erica: Well, everybody else stepped up around me, so I don't think I was really surprised as much as I just knew we could handle it. If they started pressing us, we broke it pretty easily.

The Press: Abi, you turned things around shooting-wise tonight. Is it vitally important for you to hit one of your first couple of shots for you to feel like you're going to be comfortable the rest of the day?

Abi: That's one of my weaknesses, that I do get down kind of easily. But I think the difference with this game and the ones we've played before is that the past two days before the game I didn't shoot, I didn't shoot around . . . i was just going to forget about it because the other games when i was going 1 for 8, and 2 for 10, I was shooting like an hour after practice, and it's all I thought about. So, yeah, it is important. Hopefully after today's game I can get back in the gym with a little bit more confidence and work on that not being the case.

The Press: Jenni, looking at where this game fell on ya'll's schedule with you 0-2 and Arkansas and LSU later this week, was this a must win game?

Jenni: I believe so, yeah, even if we were 2-0 going into this game-- I mean, to me every SEC game is a must win and a big game. You build on those games. You learn stuff from those games. With the situation that we had coming in 0-2, it was definitely a must win and just because that was going to improve our confidence and get us back on track to where we needed to be. Tonight we did things that we have not done as much as we do in practice. We execute and do the things that we need to do in practice, but we're now starting to get to the point where we're taking a step forward and bringing that stuff that do in practice to games. And today's game was just big in that respect itself, just taking things from practice into the game.

The Press: Jenni, you played with and against SeSe Helm in high school. In the second half you blocked one of her shots ; how did that feel?

Jenni: Well, you always have that competitive attitude against each other. She's a great player, a great person most importantly. It was fun to play against her in high school and fun to play with her as well. This is kind of a good game in that respect. We're friends, and she played well. I know she was getting frustrated, too. But little things like that kinda made the game that much more better. I really enjoy watching her play, too. She's definitely a great player.

The Press: Jenni, the fact that this was against Kentucky, was that anything extra in it for you?

Jenni: I don't think as much as it was my freshman year. I don't know that many players from Kentucky besides SeSe and the coaching staff. I guess yes and no -- it's Kentucky, I want to beat the team from my state, but I don't think it was any more important than just being an SEC team.

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