Scrappy Vandy loses 64-57 fight to Lady Vols

Playing well beyond their size, Vanderbilt's (13-5, 2-3) injury-plagued and shorthanded Commodores served notice to their east Tennessee rivals that they are still a team to be reckoned with. Previously unbeaten Georgia discovered that Thursday in a 66-44 upset, and Vandy almost repeated the feat in Knoxville.

The 64-57 score was much closer than the final 7 point difference indicated. Tennessee (16-1, 4-0), troubled from the charity stripe in the second half and sinking only 57.7% for the game, managed to chip in five free throws to nail the win.

Vandy narrowed the UT lead to two points at the 2:30 mark and with 1:42 remaining; this after a furious comeback from a seemingly insurmountable 20 point deficit in the first half. Vanderbilt lingered at seven points for nearly nine minutes while UT scrambled to a 14-0 run to lead 27-7 with 8:05 before the break. Vandy responded with an 11-0 run, aided by a trio of consecutive threes from Elan Brown and Merideth Marsh.

Given the size differential, Vandy found it tough going in the paint, sinking just 12 points to UT's 30. But the perimeter was open and Vanderbilt shot lights out from beyond the arc, hitting 10 of 19 for 52.6%. Merideth led all scorers with 23 and sank 5 of 8 from 3-point range. She was perfect from the free throw line with 6 for 6. Elan, the only other ‘Dore in double digits, hit 10 points and a pair of threes along with fellow frosh Gabby Smith who ended with nine points.

Momentum shifted in the second half when the game clock malfunctioned. While support staff took about 10 minutes to repair it, players on both sides were getting antsy, and cooling down from the furious pace minutes before.

"We had a long break there," Vanderbilt Head Coach Melanie Balcomb said. "We had momentum. I don't think we came back from the break real well. Our execution wasn't as good. We didn't execute on offense the way we needed to down the stretch. We have three freshmen on the floor. We're trying to put them in positions where they don't even have to make decisions right now. That's hard to do in a big game. They've never been at this level of competition. That put a lot of weight on the shoulders of Jess (Mooney) and Merideth."

Jessica, whose quick defensive hands were good for two steals, dropped to the court below the Vanderbilt goal and lay cramping for some minutes. Trainer Michele Loftis, Coach Balcomb and Director of Basketball Operations Justin VanOrman came on to the court to assess the injury. After downing more water and working the leg cramp out, Jessica returned for the game's final seconds. Lauren Lueders, who took a hard elbow jab to the head in a non-called foul, played 34 minutes with a high ankle sprain. Vandy's size-challenged team muscled and hustled their way to 31 rebounds to Tennessee's 32. That fact did not go unnoticed by either team's coach.

"We did the best job we possibly could rebounding," Coach Balcomb said. "We lost most of our post players, we just lost our point guard. To rebound with Tennessee the way we did, I was really impressed. It was one of the best rebounding jobs that we did since I've been at Vanderbilt."

Turnovers were the game changer – 27 for Vanderbilt to 16 for Tennessee – which led to 28 points for the Lady Vols and nine points for the Commodores.

A third of the TOs were credited to Merideth, who is re-learning the point after a nearly three-year absence at that position while Jence Rhoads sits out to heal a broken left hand.

"We were trying not to turn the ball over," Balcomb said. "We panicked at first, obviously. With our point guard out, they pressed and forced us to go fast and turn it over. We tried to slow it down and get some mismatches and attack and get some wide open threes and knock them down, which we did. Defensively, we started getting some stops. We worked harder defensively and made them miss some shots."

With three players on the injured list for a shallow bench, 6-3 reserve Rebecca Silinski played 12 key minutes to help preserve time for posts Tiffany Clarke who had 4 fouls, and Hannah Tuomi, whose playing time was limited to 10 minutes with 3 fouls in 6 minutes of play.

Tennessee's Glory Johnson led UT with 17 points and 6-6 Kelley Cain, described as "batting at gnats" against Vandy's shorter defenders, sank 14 points and Shekinna Stricklen added 10. Guard Angie Bjorklund, who was held to nine points, said of Vanderbilt: "They're just a great basketball team. They did a great job of executing their plays. They take advantage of every opportunity. If you break down defensively, they will take advantage of it. We know who their shooters are, which is basically everyone."

The Tennessee faithful turned out for the Interstate 40 rivalry as a crowd of 16,645 made some noise.

The loss to the nation's No. 4 team provided lessons learned, Coach Balcomb said. "We still did a lot of good things. There are a lot of positives from this game. I'm really proud of their effort and I'm really proud of their heart. I think we can build from this and keep getting better as long as we keep getting the experience we're getting with our freshmen. They are extremely coachable right now and I'm enjoying coaching this young team."

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