Knowing they won't say goodbye at tournament time, VU women eye SEC bye

Thursday, February 16, 2012 at 12:30am

With four regular-season games remaining, Vanderbilt appears to be a lock for the NCAA Women’s Tournament.

Carrying an RPI of 25 and three wins over RPI Top 30 teams (Tennessee, Oklahoma and Georgia), the Commodores are on track for reaching the 64-team tournament for the 13th straight season.

A bonus this year is they wouldn’t have to hop on a plane to to get there. Vanderbilt hosts the first two rounds at Memorial Gymnasium on March 18 and 20.

With the NCAA tournament still a month away, though, the Commodores are taking a game-by-game approach. Bringing that mindset to the last two weeks of the season can set them up for the future.

Entering Thursday's home game against Florida (8 p.m., FSN), Vanderbilt (19-6, 7-5) is in a two-way tie with LSU for sixth place in the Southeastern Conference standings. Three teams – Georgia, Arkansas and South Carolina – are locked in third with an 8-4 mark.

An emphasis on positioning at this juncture can’t be overlooked as the Commodores aim for fourth place or higher. The top four teams receive a bye in the first round of the SEC Tournament, which also will be played locally (Bridgestone Arena, March 1-4).

Only once in the last five years has Vanderbilt failed to secure the bye. Twice during that stretch, the Commodores captured the SEC Tournament crown, improving their NCAA Tournament seeding.

“If you go into the second round knowing that you’re playing a team that has already played you kind of have that edge over them,” guard Elan Brown said. “We would love to have that edge over another team. If we play like we know we can that won’t be a problem for us.”

Vanderbilt rode a five-game winning streak, capping it off with a huge win over then-No. 11 Tennessee at home last Thursday. Two days later, though, the it hit the road and suffered a letdown at No. 18 Georgia.

The Commodores committed 19 turnovers and never led against the same team it routed 68-48 just two weeks before to start the streak.

They can gain ground in the SEC race with a win over eight-place Florida (16-9, 6-6). Of their last four opponents, only No. 7 Kentucky, on top of the standings, has a better league mark.

“Every game right now is important,” forward Tiffany Clarke said. “It is sad that [the loss to Georgia] happened but it is a game that is definitely like, ‘Hey, we need to get our focus back. The season is not over.’ That win was not the end of our season. We still have other games that we need to play.”