Turnovers are nothing new for the Vanderbilt women’s basketball team.
The Commodores average nearly 17 a game but when they play Kentucky, the miscues really flare up.
That was no different on Saturday as they committed 16 turnovers in the first half and tied a season-high with 25 in a 69-56 loss to the No. 16 Wildcats in a Southeastern Conference Tournament semifinal at Bridgestone Arena.
In three games this season, Kentucky’s full-court pressure has rattled Vanderbilt (20-11) into 69 total turnovers. On Saturday, the second-seeded Wildcats (24-7) turned those mistakes into 27 points.
Even with senior point guard Jence Rhoads back in the lineup, the Commodores, the No. 3 seed, couldn’t solve the press. She missed the second regular-season matchup against Kentucky two weeks ago due to a sprained right ankle. But her presence didn’t seem to make a huge difference this time. She committed seven of her game-high eight turnovers in the first half as Vanderbilt went on a 10-minute scoring drought and fell behind 22-2.
The Commodores were 5-of-25 (20 percent) from the field in the first half and trailed 33-11 at halftime. That was their lowest point total in an opening half since it scored 10 against LSU on Jan. 13, 2008.
“This was a tough one. I didn’t see this coming – the start,” Vanderbilt coach Melanie Balcomb said. “I think you have to give credit to Kentucky. They came out so energized, physical and just really put us on our heels right away, which we should have been ready for after playing them twice. We didn’t respond well. ... I think there was a lot of unsure hesitation caused by the aggressiveness and Kentucky’s defense.”
Kentucky, which had 11 steals, pushed the lead to 27 with 11:37 to go in the second half before Vanderbilt put together a late rally.
The Commodores went on a 26-7 run and sliced the margin to eight points to get within eight, 56-48, with 3:07 to go. Guard Jasmine Lister scored the last five points of the spurt and Vanderbilt turned up its defensive pressure and rebounding intensity, creating several second and third opportunities.
“When you’re down, when things aren’t going your way, really getting embarrassed in your own city in the SEC Tournament by another team, you better fight back and it better be your best effort,” Balcomb said.
The Commodores, however, could have closed the gap if it wasn’t for failed chances at the foul line. Hannah Tuomi and Tiffany Clarke missed a combined six of their last seven free throw. For the game, Vanderbilt made just 12-of-22. Kentucky wasn’t much better, making 18-of-28.
But Tuomi wouldn’t use the rims, which appeared to be tight, as an excuse, saying “We’ve been here. We played on this court the night before.”
“I think it was just a [individual] tightness and over-thinking,” Clarke said. “Free throws are a lot of mental. I think when we over-think them, that is when we miss them. I think that is what happened.”
The comeback was squashed twice by Kentucky forward and Brentwood Academy grad Victoria Dunlap, who scored on tip-ins to push the lead back to double-digits. The second came after Elan Brown’s 3-pointer cut it to 60-52 with 1:40 left. The Wildcats scored the next six points to put the game away and advance to their second straight SEC championship game.
Kentucky will play fourth-ranked Tennessee at 4:30 p.m. on ESPN2 on Sunday.
Dunlap finished with 22 points and 11 rebounds and Brittany Henderson grabbed a career-high 18 boards.
For Vanderbilt, Clarke scored 18 points and pulled down 17 rebounds. Tuomi added 12 points and six boards. Lister chipped in 11 points – all in the second half – and Brown had 10.
The Commodores now have more than a week before the NCAA announces the tournament field on March 14. Balcomb sees the time off as a good thing – because her squad will have plenty to work on.
“Individual accountability on doing their job, obviously toughness, physical play and communication,” she listed. “When we do have adversity at times, we looked like we were all playing on an island by ourselves and stopped communicating. Everybody felt like they were out there by themselves instead of getting together as a team. That is just more verbal leadership on the court. They’re the same things we’ve been working on all season. We just need to keep working on them.”