‘Dores find leaders in win over Union

Under the watchful eyes of coaches looking for leadership, a new Commodore squad took to the new floor of Memorial Gym Friday night and found they could win despite the absence of last season's senior scorers. The ‘Dores turned around a poor first half to knock off scrappy NAIA champions Union University 69-48 in an exhibition match much closer than the score indicates.

Pre-season jitters, underestimating an opponent, or just playing not to lose—whatever the reasons, Vanderbilt struggled to find the basket in the first half. Easy layups, free throws and jumpers fell off the mark as the ‘Dores hit just 10 of 32 field goals. Pulling together 27 points before the halftime buzzer for a 3-point deficit was a fight. But basketball is a 40 minute game. And with a freshman and a junior leading the charge, the ‘Dores dug deep and found they could rattle their tenacious foes.

Joining seniors Meredith Marsh and Jessica Mooney in the starting lineup were juniors Hannah Tuomi, Jence Rhoads and sophomore Jordan Coleman, who made her first collegiate start. Fulfilling a promise Head Coach Melanie Balcomb made to the players, everyone got minutes in the first half, and in return, coaches got to see who would step up and who would lead.

"I wanted to watch leadership," Coach Balcomb commented. "I wanted to see how they would come together as a team. This is a new team, a new year. I wanted to see who would lead and how they would react."

Point guard Jence Rhoads and freshman post Tiffany Clarke answered with 15 points each and 7 and 9 rebounds respectively. Freshman guard Elan Brown also connected on 3 for 5 field goals and 2 for 4 three pointers for 8 points. A healthy Hannah Tuomi, fully recovered from last season's stress fracture, sank 8 points and pulled down 6 rebounds.

Jence acknowledged the quality of Union's play. "Our coaches prepared us, but as a team, we weren't ready to come out and play them. I don't know if we were a little over confident, but we definitely need to work on that. Our second half was very good, so we need to just take that and move forward with it."

Defense turned the tide in the second half. Vanderbilt shut down Union's five-guard offense and held them to just 7.7% shooting in the last 20 minutes on 2 of 26 field goals. Union sank 3-pointers in the first half and zero in the second half—14 of 18 free throw shooting kept them in the game.

"Our defense was totally different in the second half, the energy that we came out with forced them to take really, really deep threes," Balcomb said. "I was really impressed with the freshman tonight who came in and played more like free spirits, like they had nothing to lose and everything to gain."

Nine of 11 Commodores scored, but it was the debut play of Tiffany that impressed her coaches and spectators alike. Described by Balcomb as potentially one of the best rebounders in the country, Tiffany said she wanted to execute and not play like a freshman.

"I felt really great. It was my first college game so I was nervous but excited. We came out a little rough, but I was glad that we were able to come together as a team and pull it out to win our first game. We saw what we need to work on. We're going to be good as time moves on."

Leadership came in the uniform of Jence Rhoads. No. 22 coaxed her team into action and coached them on plays and movement both offensively and defensively. She also controlled the entire game's tempo.

"We're asking for so much more out of Jence," Coach Balcomb said, "and to get it with the confidence we got tonight – I was really impressed with how she handled the game."

Jence responded that she wants to improve her shooting percentage, but was pleased with her play overall. "I didn't have that many points considering I took a lot of shots. It was like the most shots I've taken ever (nailing 6 of 14 field goals and 3 of 5 three throws).

The point guard, ranked 3rd in the nation last season for an assist turnover ratio of 2.49, is taking a team leadership role seriously. "I've been trying in practice to get my voice heard. Now that I'm a junior and one of the more experienced players, I need to bring the freshmen along."

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