Melanie Balcomb can only hope that the lessons she administered Sunday will be absorbed as effectively ones from recent days and even a year ago.
The Vanderbilt women’s basketball coach had just eight available players because three freshmen were suspended for the contest due to a violation of team rules. That decision came after a run of sub-par performances prompted her to take the players’ practice gear in the days leading up to the final game before Christmas break.
Her 18th-ranked Commodores responded with an 84-47 victory over Tennessee State before 4,025 at Memorial Gymnasium.
“It brought our team together,” Balcomb said. “When you have adversity, teams either come together or they split apart and I really like the way we handled adversity. I think it brought our team together for the good, for the positive.”
Vanderbilt (10-1) made 20 of 33 first-half field goal attempts and led 52-20 at intermission.
It was the first time since last season’s crosstown matchup with TSU that the Commodores scored more than 50 in a half. The Lady Tigers (3-7) got no closer than 26 points over the final 20 minutes, which was in direct contrast to 2008. Then, Vanderbilt made the mistake of easing up, gave up 58 points in the second half and ultimately won by just 12.
The margin of victory in this one was second this season only to VU’s 95-51 triumph over Austin Peay in the opening round of the Thanksgiving tournament.
“Much better job this year,” Balcomb said, “… To maintain and to win the second half, I think they all sucked it up and had a good effort.”
Effort was at the heart of the decision to take the team’s practice uniforms in the preceding days.
There were plenty of workouts since a 75-74 victory at Quinnipiac on Dec 10, which capped a run of three straight sub-par performances. The Commodores endured their only loss, 66-60 to Bowling Green, on Dec. 4 and two days later needed overtime to beat Western Kentucky 79-73.
“I think it was a little bit of an eye-opener,” junior guard Jence Rhoads said. “It’s happened to (the upperclassmen) before, but especially to the freshmen … it was a shocker to all of us. We knew to work harder to earn (the coaches’) respect back.”
Now the three freshmen – Elan Brown, Gabby Smith and Stephanie Holzer – have a little work of their own to do in that regard. They watched in street clothes from seats behind the bench and did not accompany the rest of the team to the locker room at halftime.
Holzer has not played all season because of an injury, but Brown and Smith have been regular contributors. Their absence was especially notable in a game when illness kept guard Jessica Mooney out of the starting lineup for the first time and center Hannah Tuomi played on a tender knee.
“They apologized to all of us and they were definitely sorry about it,” Rhoads said. “They knew it was definitely the wrong time to do something like this. I think they’ll learn from it and they’ll be excited to come back and start playing again.”
Seven of the eight Commodores available logged at least 14 minutes of playing time. Mooney scored 15 in 26 minutes off the bench, and Tuomi added 15 points and eight rebounds in 26 minutes.
Senior Merideth Marsh led all scorers with 24 points in 36 minutes. Rhoads and Lauren Lueders each played 36 minutes.
“It was a challenge for everybody, but we overcame that challenge and came out with a win,” Tuomi said. “It was good to see all of the tough ones we have on our team.”