Stephanie Holzer fell into Middle Tennessee State’s trap and landed on the bench early.
Luckily for Vanderbilt, she didn’t stay there.
The Commodores’ 6-foot-4 center shook off early foul trouble and stepped up when her team needed her the most Sunday. The sophomore thwarted an MTSU rally and fueled No. 7 seed Vanderbilt to a 60-46 victory over the 10th-seeded Blue Raiders in the opening round of the Fresno Region in the NCAA Tournament on at Memorial Gymnasium.
Holzer scored seven of her nine points and grabbed half of her 10 rebounds after halftime. The seventh-seeded Commodores (23-9) advanced to play No. 2 seed Duke (25-5) at 8:30 p.m. on Tuesday night for a trip to the Sweet 16, which would be their first since 2009.
“She is just a big kid. She has got broad shoulders. She’s 6-4 and has great touch,” MTSU coach Rick Insell said. “We knew if she got planted in the lane how much she was going to be a difference-maker.”
Holzer grabbed a seat with 4:39 left in the first half after she picked up her third foul. She stayed there for the duration of the half and for the start of the second.
Frustrated by calls she didn’t believe went her way, Holzer sat on the bench, cleared her head and waited for her second chance.
“Going into the second half I think I focused on, ‘Hey Steph, you can’t foul. Hey Steph, you got to move your feet more,’ when I was sitting on the bench and during halftime that when I went out there it just subconsciously crept in,” she said. “So I was able to focus on still going hard but yet still being aware of where I am.”
MTSU (26-7), playing Vanderbilt for the first time in 20 years, never led and trailed by as many as nine points in the first half. The Blue Raiders struggled offensively, hitting every part of the backboard and air-balling several shots as they scored a season-low 18 points in the opening half and trailed 25-18 at the break.
They regrouped at halftime and hit their first three shots out of the intermission. Kortni Jones, who led MTSU with 12 points, knocked down two 3-pointers and Shanice Cason made two free throws at the 16:58 mark to knot the game at 28.
After a timeout with 15:50 left, Holzer and Tiffany Clarke, who also picked up three fouls in the first half, returned.
Holzer immediately made up for lost time. After Icelyn Elie blocked a shot by Clarke, Holzer grabbed the miss and made a jumper. The basket sparked a 20-5 run in which Holzer scored seven points, picked up five rebounds and dished a no-look pass to Kady Schrann, who sank a jumper for a commanding 48-33 lead with 6:27 left.
Sophomore guard Jasmine Lister scored 14 of her game-high 19 points after halftime and Elan Brown chipped in 12. The SEC’s leading scorer Christina Foggie had just seven points as she battled hydration issues and left the game momentarily with cramps.
The difference, though, was Vanderbilt’s defense, which varied from man-to-man to matchup zone to box-and-one. MTSU shot just 28.1 percent – the second-lowest mark of the season.
Holzer helped thwart the Blue Raiders on the defensive end with her length and blocked three shots. Post players Elie and Ebony Rowe – both 6-foot-1 – combined to make just seven of 28 shots. Rowe finished with 10 points while Elie had seven. The inside duo each grabbed 16 rebounds – 14 of Rowe’s came on the offensive end – as MTSU outrebounded Vanderbilt 41-39. The Blue Raiders had many second looks, grabbing 28 offensive rebounds but scoring just four second-chance points.
“They can’t shoot up over us so they are trying to get under us,” Vanderbilt coach Melanie Balcomb said. “If they get inside and miss the shot, then they are inside to get the offensive rebound and then you are behind and that’s where we are getting the fouls. Not on the first shot but on the offensive rebounds. We limited that in the second half and, even when they got the offensive rebounds, we stayed straight up and made them shoot over us again on the offensive board.”