The sign behind the visitors bench was directed at a player for the home team. It read: “We will miss you 23.”
Unfortunately for the little girl who held it over her head and the rest of the Vanderbilt women’s basketball community, the final act of Merideth Marsh (No. 23) was, in fact, a miss.
Playing in the final regular season game of her college career, the senior guard’s game-tying 3-point attempt rattled off the rim and out as the final seconds ticked away on a ‘senior day’ meant to honor her and three of her teammates.
“We ran a play that we’ve run a million times,” Marsh said. “I got a good look, and to be completely honest, it felt good. It looked good. It felt good
But it wasn’t. The result was a 73-70 loss to South Carolina before 5,104 at Memorial Gymnasium, which had a direct impact on what happens next.
The Commodores (20-9, 97 in the SEC) needed only to win to guarantee themselves one of the top four seeds — and a first-round bye — for this week’s Southeastern Conference tournament. Instead, they dropped to the No. 5 seed and into a bracket with LSU, a team that recently held them to the lowest point total in school history, and Tennessee, one of two conference teams to defeat Vanderbilt twice this season.
“We have to win four games in four days … (and) it makes it difficult,” coach Melanie Balcomb said. “It won’t matter what round it is, we’re just going to try to get Ws at this point.”
Marsh’s was a most incongruous conclusion to one of the finest offensive performances by a player who, at that point, had risen to become one of the top 20 scorers in program history.
She had made six of 10 3-pointers and eight of 14 shots overall as she racked up 27 points, one shy of her career-high and enough to move past Carolyn Peck and Misty Lamb and into 19th place on Vanderbilt’s all-time scoring list at 1,248.
When South Carolina (14-14, 7-9) rallied in the second half and surged to a seven-point advantage with just under six minutes to go, Marsh scored four points in 40 seconds and cut the deficit back down to a single possession (62-59). Of course, that was after her 3-pointer 1:23 into the second half — her third of the game — broke a 32-32 tie and started a stretch in which she scored all but one of her team’s points in a 9-0 run.
In between, the Gamecocks repeatedly got the ball inside to their post players Charenee Stephens (14 points) and Kelsey Bone (12 points) and scored on 13 of 14 possessions. Up until that point, they relied on the perimeter play of Valerie Nainima, who finished with a team-high 23 points.
“We let people do exactly what they’re good at,” senior guard Jessica Mooney said. “Anytime that happens, you’re going to have a rough game and most times it’s going to end up in a loss.
“I’m just kind of in disbelief that we lost this game because it’s completely our fault. … I’ve never been a part of a senior day, never seen one where the seniors didn’t win.”