When Vanderbilt coach Melanie Balcomb drew up the game plan to stop Tennessee, she outlined two key areas: zero in on leading scorer Meighan Simmons and drive into the paint.
Then she watched as the Commodores went out in the first half and failed to do either.
Vanderbilt rallied from a 15-point deficit but couldn’t quite get over the hump in an 83-75 loss to the ninth-ranked Lady Vols on Thursday night in front of a season-high crowd of 10,154 at Memorial Gymnasium.
“I’m just baffled by the first half,” Balcomb said. “I liked the fight in the second half but obviously the first half we just didn’t execute our game plan. Our kids are smarter than that. They have to work harder at the things we’re asking them to do.”
Simmons set the tone for Tennessee (16-3, 7-0 Southeastern Conference), which improved to 25-2 in the series since the 2001-02 season. She drove to the basket early and scored 10 of her 23 points in the first half.
The Commodores (13-6, 3-3) also let Taber Spani get loose for 15 of her career-high 24 points.
“We have a lot of confidence in practice and to come out and let people run around and score like that is frustrating,” guard Christina Foggie said. “Defensively we can’t get away from the game plan, just playing defense without fouling. We just have to stay smarter and stick with the game plan.”
Offensively, Vanderbilt attempted 12 3-pointers before halftime and made just two. The Commodores shot just 25.6 percent (10 of 39) and fell behind by 15 before trailing 41-29 at halftime.
“The first half we took too many outside shots and weren’t aggressive and didn’t attack enough,” Balcomb said. “I thought we had learned that from the LSU game [a 54-51 loss on Sunday] but we pretty much did the same thing.”
The game plan finally got through in the second half as the Commodores scored 12 straight points out of the break. Christina Foggie, who had a game-high 22 points, attacked the basket on two straight possessions. Tiffany Clarke turned two straight offensive rebounds into buckets and Jasmine Lister capped off the spurt with a 3-pointer to tie the game at 41 with 16:07 left.
But Tennessee made sure not to lose its second straight to Vanderbilt at Memorial Gymnasium. Simmons and Bashaara Graves accounted for all 11 points in an 11-2 run as the Commodores never jumped in front. They pulled within five points five times in the last six minutes, including a 71-66 margin with 3:32 left. But they missed four straight shots, including three 3-pointers.
“We got every look,” Balcomb said. “We didn’t knock them down when we needed to. But we got every look we needed to get. I mean some wide-open looks.”
Tennessee sealed its 10th straight win at the foul line. The Lady Vols didn’t make a basket from the field in the last 4:50 but sunk 14 of 15 free throws during that stretch, including 12 straight. In addition to Spani and Simmons, the Vols received 16 points from Graves as the former Clarksville standout was playing in front of family and friends.
For Vanderbilt, Clarke finished with 19 points and 10 rebounds for her sixth double-double of the season. Kady Schrann added 14 points.
“We definitely didn’t play how we’ve been practicing,” Clarke said. “We definitely practice a lot different and we were more focused. Then the effort just wasn’t there in the first half. That was a shock and disappointing.”
• Clarke, Foggie and Lister were honored before the game for recently eclipsing the 1,000-point mark in their careers. Clarke reached it in December, Foggie surpassed the mark two weeks ago and Lister became the 36th member of the club on Sunday against LSU. It marks just the second time in program history that three players have reached the 1,000-point plateau in the same season.
• Vanderbilt center Clair Watkins suffered a season-ending injury when she tore her left ACL in practice on Wednesday. The 6-foot-4 sophomore averaged 1.5 points in 4.9 minutes a game. She redshirted the 2010-11 season after tearing her right ACL in the team’s first practice.
• Former Tennessee coach Pat Summitt made the trip and sat next to Gov. Bill Haslam in the first row behind the Lady Vols’ bench. Summitt, the all-time winningest college basketball coach, retired after last season and is currently the head coach emeritus.