Freshman helps VU women ring in conference play with a victory

Sunday, January 3, 2010 at 6:12pm
Freshman Tiffany Clarke shoots over Ole Miss defenders in Vanderbilt's win on Sunday. / Mike Strasinger for The City Paper

Tiffany. It’s the name that has brought smiles to the faces of women for generations.

However, the current crop of women’s basketball players and coaches in the Southeastern Conference are likely to have a different reaction over the next four years – if Sunday was an accurate indicator of what’s to come, that is.

Vanderbilt freshman Tiffany Clarke was a primary facet of a sparkling first-half offensive performance that carried the 18th-ranked Commodores to an 86-72 victory over Ole Miss on Sunday in the SEC opener for both teams.

Undaunted by the physical nature of conference play – a combined 43 fouls were called – she poured in points in bunches and exceeded her non-conference scoring average in a little more than 13 minutes of play.

“I prefer physical play more than a lot of people,” Clarke said. “So I liked it a lot.”

The forward from Norcross, Ga., scored 15 of her 18 points in the first 20 minutes, when Vanderbilt shot 70.4 percent from the field as a team and racked up 17 assists on 19 field goals. She scored eight of 12 when the Commodores expanded an early 8-3 lead to 20-7, and later added seven in a row capped by a layup that made it 40-26 with 3:44 remaining.

Foul trouble – she was whistled for her third and fourth three seconds apart – limited her to eight minutes of playing time in the second half. Even so, she tied with senior Lauren Lueders for team-high scoring honors and her five defensive rebounds were the most for any player on either side.

“She was not a surprise,” Ole Miss coach Renee Ladner said. “Everybody (recruited) Tiffany Clarke. She is going to be an outstanding player for Vanderbilt. We knew that she would be a very tough matchup for us, but it was pick you poison – you either had to guard the shooters or try to guard the interior.”

The Lady Rebels did not fare much better defending the perimeter than they did inside against Clarke.

Lueders set a career-high for points scored on the strength of four 3-pointers (on six attempts). Merideth Marsh and Jence Rhoads – both guards – chipped in 16 and 11, respectively.

As a team the Commodores (12-2, 1-0 in the SEC) made nine of 12 3-pointers. They hit on four of six in the first half and five of six in the second.

That balance kept Ole Miss (9-5, 0-1) at bay after intermission as the fouls mounted on both sides. Vanderbilt took a 14-point lead into halftime and let dip below 10 only once in the second half. When it did – 59-50 with 13:57 to go – Lueders made a 3-pointer 13 seconds later.

“I think it was really key not to let them back in this game, not to let them make that big run because of the mental peace for the next game,” VU coach Melanie Balcomb said.

The return engagement will be Feb. 21 at Oxford, Miss. Talk of another encounter with Clarke probably does not have a nice ring to it for Ole Miss.