Going into the game, one word describes the importance of the game for Vanderbilt: B-I-G.
Following a pre-season with high expectations for a team laden with talented and experienced veterans, Vanderbilt's hopes for a special season took a catastrophic blow when 6-4 Stephanie Holzer suffered a season-ending knee injury in the team's exhibition game.
After that, the injury bug continued to bite. Backup post Clair Watkins suffered a torn ACL in January, sophomore guard Kady Schrann missed and practice and games with a sprained ankle, and star guard Christina Foggie has been out for the past three games with a knee injury.
The end result of the injury-hampered season was a 6-6 SEC record (16-9 overall) going into the game in Gainesville on Thursday night. The Dores have several quality wins and no bad losses on their NCAA resume, good enough for ESPN's Charlie Creme to project them as a #9 seed in his latest guess at the bracket.
But when Foggie went down ten days ago, fans and media began to wonder whether this might be the year that Vanderbilt's streak of 13 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances would come to an end. With two of the four remaining games on the schedule against two of the top SEC teams, the road game against Florida loomed large. A win would be another positive check mark for the NCAA resume; a loss would make a winning SEC record a very tough hill to climb.
Head Coach Melanie Balcomb started the same starters that she's used in the two previous games since Foggie's injury: Senior post Tiffany Clarke, freshman post Heather Bowe, junior guard Jasmine Lister, senior guard/forward Elan Brown, and senior guard Gabby Smith.
In the very early going, both teams struggled to score, and at the first media timeout, the score was tied 6-6. Florida took the lead at 8-6, but a layup by freshman guard Morgan Batey tied the game again at 8-8 and a jumper by freshman point guard Jasmine Jenkins put Vanderbilt back on top.
After that, Vanderbilt slowly but surely built on that lead, and at the end of the half, a 3-pointer from Jasmine Lister gave the Dores an 11-point half-time lead at 26-15.
It would have been interesting to be a fly on the wall in the Florida locker room at halftime. Thanks in large part to Vanderbilt's defense, the Gators played a dismal first half with 12 turnovers and a field goal percentage of 26.9%.
Whatever Florida Head Coach Amanda Butler did during the halftime intermission, it worked. The Gators came out of the locker room with an aggressiveness that had been lacking in the first half. Four Vanderbilt turnovers contributed to a 12-0 Florida run, in which the Gators connected on six of seven shots from the field, most at point-blank range. Vanderbilt's double-digit halftime lead had been erased in less than five minutes.
Coach Balcomb sent her freshman guards into the game. A layup by Jenkins put Vanderbilt back on top 28-27. Florida countered with a 3-pointer by redshirt freshman Carlie Needles, then Batey tied the score at 30-30. Florida took the lead one more time on a layup by Jennifer George, but a 3-pointer by Jasmine Lister gave Vanderbilt the lead for good.
As they had in the first half, the Dores began to slowly and sure build the lead again. Another 3-pointer from Lister midway through the half gave Vanderbilt a one-point lead at 33-32, a lead they would never relinquish after that.
Another 3-pointer by Lister gave the Dores a 7-point lead at 39-32 midway through the second half. After that, the Dores looked increasingly inside to Tiffany Clarke, who dominated the paint, scoring 20 points in the final ten minutes of the game.
But the Gators continued to fight, and with 7:40 left, an offensive rebound and layup by freshman Sydney Moss cut the Vanderbilt lead to two points at 43-41, but that's as close as they'd get. Elan Brown was fouled driving to the basket and sank both free throws, then Lister capitalized on a Florida turnover with a basket to give Vanderbilt a 6-point lead.
At the final media timeout with 2:48 left in the game, the Dores held a 12-point lead at 56-44. Although a few fans left the arena at that point, the game was far from over. Timeouts for both teams, timeouts from players fouling out, fouls and free throws stretched the final 2:48 of basketball time out to 22 minutes in real clock time.
In the end, it came down to shooting free throws as Florida fouled to prolong the game. Freshman Rayte'a Long was the first, knocking down the front end of a 1-and-1 in front of the raucus Florida pep band then sank the second. Next came Lister, followed by Clarke and Batey. In all, in the final 1:14 of the game, the Dores connected on 10 of 12 free throw attempts to seal the 68-57 victory.
Afterwards, it was obvious that Balcomb was very pleased with her team. "It was a great game," she said. It’s one of the best wins – we were down, we were out, we were hurt, we’re young, and I thought it was a great team victory."
"To hold them to 15 points at halftime, then them come out and get aggressive and make a run, and us not fold. We fought back. People did their jobs. Jas hit clutch shots, then she got the ball to Tiff," she continued. "It’s a good feeling because they were very coachable, and I didn’t have to coach effort."
Although Clarke and Lister carried the lion's share of the scoring load in the game, contributions from the team's freshmen were key. Besides Morgan and Batey, freshman post Rayte's Long entered the game with 12 minutes left in the game when Vanderbilt was holding a slim 33-32 lead and stayed on the court for the remainder of the game.
"I trusted Rayte’a for the defense and the rebounding. She was so solid and she is so physical," Balcomb said. "Nobody has put in more extra time to get what she didn’t get early on in the season. And now she gets it, and now she has confidence, and the team has confidence with her on the floor."
Heather Bowe has been getting significant minutes all season, but playing time for the team's other freshmen has increased over the past few games. On Thursday, freshmen played 82 of 200 minutes.
"They’re giving energy to Tiff and giving energy to Elan and energy to Jas, who have been trying to hold down the fort while they grow up. And they’ve grown. They’ve grown a lot," Balcomb said. "We wanted them to grow earlier when we had all those injuries early, but they have continued to grow, and injuries have allowed them to make the most of opportunities."
Next, Vanderbilt returns home to host Texas A&M in the final Sunday afternoon home game of the season. The pregame Kids Zone in the practice gym will be open before the game, and the players on the team will sign autographs in the final autograph session of the year afterwards. Game time is 4 p.m., and the game will be nationally televised on ESPN2.
Stephen C. O'Connell Center (aka "O-Dome")
Photos copyright 2013 by Whitney D. for VandyMania.com>