Freshmen join Rhoads show in home opener

There was something missing in Vanderbilt's 90-54 season opener win against Lehigh: nerves. There was hustle aplenty among starters and reserves in a game that indicated there will be a number of players to watch as the season plays out.

Joining their experienced teammates in executing defensive pressure and offensive confidence, freshmen Elan Brown (7 points, 3 assists, 2 steals), Tiffany Clarke (14 points on 7-10 shooting with 5 boards) and Gabby Smith (9 points on 4-5 shooting and 5 rebounds) were all on the court in less than 7 minutes in the first half.

Every Commodore played, and every Commodore scored in what was a mostly balanced effort, led by Tiffany with 14 points, senior Lauren Lueders with 13 and junior Hannah Tuomi with 12. The Duluth, Ga., freshman played through the pain of a fractured left pinky, broken in practice last week and taped for the game.

"It takes a while sometimes for freshmen to learn where to be and to learn our defensive plans," said Vanderbilt Head Coach Melanie Balcomb. "I think it's tougher than offense, and we're not real simple on offense either. We have a lot of things in already and I think they have been very quick learners. So to go to the bench that early in the first game and to see us run that offense, and it actually looked like it was supposed to look; I was very pleased with that."

But the real key to the offensive run and gun show was junior Jence Rhoads, who will have a difficult time flying under the radar this season if she continues to thread the needle with the accuracy she did Sunday. A career-high 10 assists to one turnover will add to stats that placed her third in the nation last season in assist-to-turnover ratio.

"Jence is a really good basketball player," Coach Balcomb said, "What I'm trying to get Jence to do is what she did tonight. In 25 minutes her assist-to-turnover ratio was 10-to-1 and she shot it 10 times. She made people pay for not playing her. She was aggressive all night. She is a key for us."

Finding open shooters with precise passing, Jence was also able to sink four baskets.

"I've been taking more shots in practice and that's carried over into the game and made me a lot more confident. They were sagging off of me and I recognized that and was able to knock some down."

The trio of freshmen who played with confidence and attack-minded defenders Jessica Mooney, Lauren Lueders and Hannah Tuomi have improved Vanderbilt's transition game.

Speed and rebounding are potentially better than last year, Coach Balcomb offered. "You may laugh when I say that because we're small, but I don't think height gets you rebounds necessarily. Its heart, desire and hustle; all those intangibles we try to recruit. People want to go after the basketball and that's one of things that Tiffany, Elan and Gabby brings us right away."

Lauren, who posted 11 points against Drury in the second exhibition, was one basket off a perfect shooting game (4-5 field goals, 3-3 3-pointers and 2-2 free throws). With five turnovers, her intensity level showed. "I was more patient and took better shots; therefore, I was more efficient. I'm trying to make better decisions this year and be a spark off the bench."

Solid defense held Lehigh's top shooters to single digits, spoiling a homecoming for Columbia, Tenn., native Alex Ross, who set a Lehigh record last season with 93 3-pointers. Ross had 8 points while Patriot League Player of the Year Erica Prosser (4 of 17 from the field) contributed 9 points.

After three ties by the 16:17 mark, the ‘Dores never trailed, although the Mountain Hawks cut the margin to three at 13-10 with 13:15 left in the first half. The halftime score was 47-29 and Lehigh came within 9 points at 18:12 in the second half, but never any closer.

Next is Wednesday's match-up against Southern Illinois in Carbondale, Ill., before a home game Friday with UC-Riverside.

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