When center Stephanie Holzer sustained a season-ending knee injury in an exhibition game in November, half of Vanderbilt’s dual threat inside disappeared.
Instead of having two competent, almost interchangeable post players with 10 fouls to give, the Commodores knew most of the workload would fall to Tiffany Clarke. The senior has quickly become the go-to threat inside as freshmen Heather Bowe and Kendall Shaw continue their on-the-job training.
“I definitely had to step up,” Clarke said. “I had to become more focused and more of a leader. I knew I couldn’t take plays off like maybe I would have before.”
That’s rarely been a problem this season for Clarke, who leads the team with 15.8 points and 8.1 rebounds. She’ll again be called upon to man the post as the Commodores host No. 9 Tennessee on Thursday (8 p.m., SportSouth).
The last time Vanderbilt (13-5, 3-2 Southeastern Conference) hosted the Lady Vols (15-3, 6-0) — last February — Clarke delivered one of the best performances of her career. She made 10 of 13 shots and led all scorers with 23 points. She also outworked UT stalwarts Glory Johnson and Shekinna Stricklen for a game-high 12 rebounds in leading Vanderbilt to just its second win over UT 2002.
“She was awesome,” guard Christina Foggie said. “I remember our posts were great that game. It was a team effort but we definitely went as our posts did that game.”
Even without the insurance a healthy 6-foot-4 Holzer offers, Clarke has played bigger than her 6-foot frame. Shooting 56.5 percent from the field, she averages four points more than she did as a junior and has nearly doubled her production from her freshman and sophomore seasons. In December, the Duluth, Ga., native matched her jersey number became the 34th Vanderbilt player to score more than 1,000 career points.
“I think the big thing with Tiff is she is scoring,” Balcomb said. “I think she is a strong force for us inside and more consistent than she has ever been. We’re trying to get more defense and rebounding out of her because we miss that size Steph gave us, that presence defensively.”
In order to do that she must stay on the floor.
Her presence is essential against the Lady Vols, who lead the SEC with 45.6 rebounds a game. Freshman Bashaara Graves out of Clarksville averages 14.4 points and 8.9 rebounds. Hillsboro grad and sophomore Isabella Harrison averages 10.4 points and 8.5 rebounds.
In three of the Commodores' five losses, Clarke has run into foul trouble and failed to score more than nine points. She battled through four fouls on Sunday against LSU, when she registered her 18th career double-double (17 points, 13 rebounds) in a career-high 37 minutes. Vanderbilt still lost 54-51.
When she commits three fouls or fewer, Vanderbilt is 10-2 this season.
“I know I need to stay in the game,” Clarke said. “I know I am an important part of our team. I’m definitely working on [committing less fouls], especially for this game.”