The last thing Vanderbilt wanted to do was fall to 0-2 in Southeastern Conference play.
For more than 20 minutes on Sunday, the 24th-ranked Commodores’ play on the floor mirrored their mindset. They played timid and tight.
With only a four-point lead at halftime over a freshman and sophomore-laden Ole Miss, Vanderbilt coach Melanie Balcomb said she didn’t want to add more stress by ripping into her team. Instead, she needed them to loosen up.
They finally pulled away midway through the second half for a 68-52 victory in front of 4,003 at Memorial Gymnasium and bounced back from a loss in their SEC opener at South Carolina on Thursday.
“We’re not in there at halftime ranting and raving and yelling at them to play harder. That wasn’t the issue,” Balcomb said. “They were playing not to lose and didn’t want to be 0-2 and didn’t want to lose a game at home. They knew how important it is and it’s hard to play that way. They made the adjustment of playing in the moment and focusing on each other, trusting each other and they brought each other’s strengths out.”
After 14 turnovers in the first half, Vanderbilt (13-2, 1-1 SEC) committed just seven over the final 20 minutes and began to assert itself inside – mainly by getting the ball inside to Tiffany Clarke.
The 6-foot junior came off the bench and scored 13 of her 19 points in the second half as she matched season-highs in points and rebounds (10). She also collected her 10th career double-double and the third this season.
“I definitely love playing at the higher level of competition,” Clarke said. “It is more aggressive and more physical and that brings more aggression and strength in me.”
Ole Miss (10-6, 0-3) now has lost 15 in a row on the road to Vanderbilt, dating back to 1989, but the Rebels kept it interesting on Sunday.
They pulled within one point less than a minute into the second half and the teams traded baskets for the next six minutes. The Commodores finally pulled away after Ole Miss forward Nikki Boyd picked up her fourth foul with 12:56 remaining. Vanderbilt went on an 11-0 run, scoring nine in the two-minute span that Byrd sat on the bench.
The Rebels’ offense sputtered as they couldn’t rely on the 6-foot-4 Byrd to alter shots defensively and corral offensive misses to set up second-chance opportunities. The senior finished with 15 points on 13 rebounds.
“It kills you,” Ole Miss coach Renee Ladner said of Byrd’s brief absence. “That was the difference.”
During that stretch Vanderbilt guard Christina Foggie finally made some shots after missing 10 of her first 11 shots. She scored seven straight points during the spurt and capped it off with two free throws for a 45-33 lead with 11:07 remaining.
Foggie, the team’s leading scorer with 17.7 points per game, scored nine of her 11 points after halftime. Her backcourt counterpart, Jasmine Lister, had 15 points and six assists.
“I was a little rushed on my shots,” Foggie said. “The second half I came out and played better defensively. That kind of calms me down on the offensive end and we started hitting more shots in the second half. It was just a matter of slowing down."
The Commodores raced out to a 17-8 lead and appeared to be in control. But they went scoreless over the next 6:45 as they missed easy layups, misfired on jumpers and 3-pointers and committed six turnovers. This was after a season-high 26 turnovers at South Carolina.
Ole Miss, which shot 22.2 percent in the first half and 28.4 percent for the game, battled back, grabbing a two-point lead.
Clarke’s layup in transition ended the drought and tied the game at 19 with 2:45 before halftime. The basket sparked an 8-0 run, with four free throws from Jordan Coleman, as Vanderbilt took a 25-21 lead into halftime.
“That was the only time defensively we didn’t do a good job,” Balcomb said. “It is hard to miss layups you normally make and miss shots you normally make and not go down and have that carry over into your defense. I think that is what was happening mentally. I thought other than those seven minutes we controlled the game.”