SEC: Clarke shakes off first-half foul trouble, send VU to semis

Saturday, March 5, 2011 at 12:50am

Fatigue should not be an issue for Tiffany Clarke on Saturday, the third day of the 2011 Southeastern Conference women’s basketball tournament.

Not that any of the remaining teams have cause to be particularly weary. Vanderbilt completed that group with a 69-55 victory over Mississippi State on Friday night as the top four seeds – none of which played in Thursday’s opening round – all won their quarterfinal contests.

However, Clarke, a sophomore forward, got a nice, long – albeit unscheduled – rest after she committed her second foul just 5:08 into the contest. She spent the remainder of the first half on the bench but roared through the final 20 minutes and the finished as the Commodores’ top scorer and rebounder with 23 and nine, respectively.

“I told her at halftime, ‘You have a lot more energy than everybody else. We should see it,’” Vanderbilt coach Melanie Balcomb said. “She didn’t just bring energy, she brought a toughness – she rebounded, she defended and she scored.

“I thought she brought a mental toughness and a physical toughness that was hard to fight through [after] sitting for so long in the first half.”

At the point she was whistled for her second foul, Clarke had not even attempted a shot and had just two rebounds.

She was on the floor at the start of the second half, though, and third-seeded Vanderbilt (20-10) made 12 of its next 15 shots. Seven of those baskets came from Clarke – on just eight attempts.

“I would say I was more motivated, more focused and ready to play,” Clarke said. “I know my team needed me and I needed to be there for them.”

She came out of the game roughly five minutes into the second half, but did so under decidedly different circumstances than in the first.

This time it was a well-earned break given that she had scored seven of the Commodores’ first 11 points and pushed a seven-point halftime lead to 11, 44-33. Shortly after she returned, she racked up 10 straight points in just under three minutes and single-handedly pushed the margin to its widest, 18 points (64-46).

“I just let it not be about myself,” Clarke said. “I don’t focus on myself because it’s a team sport. I knew I wasn’t going to go back in [during the first half] so I had to be there for my team and cheer and get them going and keep them motivated, ready to play and energetic.”

The foul troubles were something different for Clarke, who averaged just over two per game and was disqualified just once during the regular season. In fact, she could not recall any time she sat for so long under those circumstances.

“I think it’s very hard to do what Tiffany did,” Balcomb said. “We talk a lot about team focus and cheering and what it means to be a great teammate on the bench. … You could tell that that’s what [Clarke] was focused on. I think she did a great job with that.”

Of course, she was even better when she was on the floor.

No. 4 Georgia 66, No. 5 South Carolina 34: Meredith Mitchell scored a game-high 18 points, Porsha Phillips had a double-double and the Lady Bulldogs (21-9) set the record for fewest points allowed in an SEC tournament game.

South Carolina (17-14) made just 12 field goals and committed 18 turnovers. Its point total was more than 25 below its season average and 15 fewer than its low for the season.

The previous record for fewest points allowed in the event was 36, set by LSU in 2008 and matched In Thursday’s opening round – again by LSU.

“We felt that zone was probably the way to go to protect the paint,” Georgia coach Andy Landers said. “… They shot a lot of 3s, but they didn’t hit them. I tend to think that’s because our kids were able to get back up on them.”

Mitchell made eight shots (including all six she attempted) in the second half on nine attempts. Phillips had 10 points and 10 rebounds by halftime and finished with 12 and 15, respectively. Her rebound total was more than double that of any player on either team.

Markeshia Grant led South Carolina with 13 points.