There is no doubt it helped not having her around.
When the Vanderbilt women played at Florida earlier this season, Hannah Tuomi scored just six points in a foul-plagued performance in which she played only 16 minutes for the Commodores. But Florida’s 6-foot-4 center Azania Stewart was playing that night.
Stewart wasn’t playing Wednesday night, missing her fourth game with a foot injury, and that most likely aided Tuomi, who scored a career-high 26 points on a perfect 10-of-10 shooting from the field to lead Vanderbilt to a 71-60 victory at Memorial Gymnasium.
But to Commodores head coach Melanie Balcomb, her 6-1 forward “just wanted it.”
“That was fun to see Hannah play like that,” Balcomb said. “She was strong. She was confident. To be honest with you, she just does everything. That’s why I am so excited that she gets rewarded with an effort like this.”
Tuomi, who came in averaging nine points a game, was also one rebound shy of a double-double and was 6-of-9 from the free-throw line for the Commodores (18-10, 9-6 Southeastern Conference).
She played a big part in helping Vanderbilt weather several rallies from Florida (14-14, 7-8). Her fast-break layup with two minutes left gave the Commodores a 60-53 lead and from there they pulled away, leading by as many as 13 in the final moments.
It had looked like Vanderbilt would pull away in the first half as it led 31-19 with 36 seconds left in the first half despite committing 11 turnovers before halftime.
But Lonnika Thompson’s 3-pointer on the next possession was a sign of things to come. That cut the lead to nine points at halftime and was start of a 12-2 run that would carry into the second half. Steffi Sorensen’s 3-pointer with 16:08 left pulled Florida within two, 33-31.
“We knew they were fighters,” said Vanderbilt guard Jence Rhoads, who scored 12 of her 16 points in the second half. “We knew they would be in it until the end of the game.”
And the Gators were. With Jennifer George (13 points), Jordan Jones (11) and Sorensen (11) all finishing in double-digit figures, Florida rebounding from a poor shooting performance (9-of-27) in the first half and hung around.
Vanderbilt pushed its advantage back to 47-39 with more than 10 minutes left but the lead was just 52-49 three minutes later. Meredith Marsh drilled a big 3-pointer a couple possessions later for three of her 13 points and the Commodores were able to keep Florida at arms’ length, not letting the Gators get within five points after that.
“For the majority of the ballgame I thought we were reacting to what Vanderbilt was doing,” Florida head coach Amanda Butler said. "You just can’t play that way on a really well-coached team’s home floor with experienced players that can beat you a certain way. And we allowed them to beat us a certain way.”
And that was inside with steady doses of Tuomi.
“I think tonight was just my night,” she said. “I just I think some of the times I just happened to be at the right place at the right time and the ball got passed to me.”
Of course, not having to go up against a 6-4 center doesn’t hurt either.
• Vanderbilt has now won six straight games against Florida — matching its longest winning streak against the Gators. The Commodores also won six in a row from 1992-96. Florida last beat Vanderbilt on Jan. 22, 2006.
• If the SEC Tournament were to start today, Vanderbilt would be the No. 3 seed. With one game left in the regular season — the Commodores host South Carolina on Saturday — Vanderbilt is 9-6 in league play. The Commodores lead Mississippi State by half a game.
The Bulldogs, who are 17-10 overall and 8-6 in conference action, beat Vanderbilt twice this season and hold the tiebreaker against Vanderbilt. Mississippi State has two games left — both on the road. The Bulldogs play at Alabama on Thursday and at LSU on Sunday.
Even if Vanderbilt falls back to the fourth seed, it would still receive a first-round bye.
The SEC Tournament begins on March 4 in Duluth, Ga.