Melanie Balcomb can’t shed her non-conformist side. Not that she wants to.
Ever since she could remember, she was different.
“If everybody wore Docksiders when I was growing up, I didn’t wear Docksiders,” Balcomb said, referring to the stylish boat shoes. “I don’t ever and never have had a problem with being different.”
Therefore, Balcomb wasn’t deterred 10 years ago when Vanderbilt courted her for its vacant women’s basketball coach position. Memorial Gymnasium, the Southeastern Conference’s oldest arena, has no equal.
Built in 1952 as a combination gymnasium and concert hall, the historic building possesses some unique features. The benches sit on the baselines. Two steal beams are erected to hold up the baskets. Parts of the court are elevated above the theater-style seating.
Balcomb looked at the quirky venue and saw a perfect match.
“I was like, ‘I need that.’ I need to be here. It’s different,” she said. “Everybody else has air [conditioning] and we don’t. ... The fact that my gym is different, I love it.”
Thriving in the uniqueness of her home arena, Balcomb hopes to add another chapter to “Memorial Magic” on Tuesday night. No. 7 seed Vanderbilt hosts No. 2 seed and sixth-ranked Duke at 8:30 p.m. in the second round of the Fresno Region of the NCAA Tournament.
After dispatching of in-state rival Middle Tennessee State on Sunday, the Commodores are 18-1 at home this season. In 10 years under Balcomb, Vanderbilt is 131-24 at Memorial for an impressive 84.5 winning percentage.
“We don’t lose at home,” guard Jasmine Lister said. “That’s just not what Vanderbilt does.”
In NCAA Tournament games at home, the Commodores (23-9) are practically unbeatable. On five occasions, Vanderbilt has punched its ticket to the Sweet 16 in front of its home crowd.
They’ve won 16 of 17 at Memorial, their only loss coming the last time they hosted the first two rounds — in 2006 against North Carolina. Another ACC foe, Duke (25-5), will try to keep the Commodores from reaching their first Sweet 16 since 2009.
The Blue Devils hold a 3-2 edge against Vanderbilt, last playing — and winning — in 2007 at Memorial. None of those Duke players remain, but they did get their first taste on Sunday, when they breezed by Samford for an 82-47 victory.
“For the most part it was less different than you thought it would be after playing in that first game,” Duke sophomore guard/forward Haley Peters said. “It was weird checking in when you were subbing in and out, going up there [at midcourt]. It wasn’t as much of an adjustment as we thought it would be.”
Perhaps the biggest challenge for Duke — and the other three teams — was battling the heat.
Without air conditioning, Memorial has been known to reach 120 degrees in the summer when the men’s and women’s basketball teams hold camps. It wasn’t that hot on Sunday, but TV cameras showed a thermometer reaching well into the high 80s.
Duke sophomores Chelsea Gray and Shay Selby both stressed the importance of staying hydrated. Coach Joanne P. McCallie said she felt like a child being reminded to take her medicine as assistants continually handed her water on Sunday.
Even Vanderbilt players battled the conditions. The SEC’s leading scorer Christina Foggie (17.5 ppg) left momentarily in the second half after cramping up. The heat compounded problems for Foggie, who had been sick and getting headaches since Friday. She sat out practice Saturday and was expected to miss at least some of the workouts on Monday.
After Sunday, the sophomore guard wasn’t opposed to adding an air conditioning unit.
“It would be nice. Who wouldn’t [want that]?” Foggie said. “But we’ve practiced in it enough. We’ve played in it enough. We’ve ran in it enough. For us, it might be an advantage because we’ve seen it before. We just had to be reminded the other day. It is the first time we’ve seen it [reach those temperatures] in a while.”
Asked if she openly tells recruits about the lack of air conditioning, Balcomb joked, “No, I told them, ‘We air this up.'
“They did ask questions,” Balcomb continued. “[Our players] told them, ‘No, we go out on the hot astro-turf field.’ That thing burns.”
Balcomb has no plans to push for air conditioning in Memorial. Why conform?
“That is another thing as a recruit that has to excite you and not go, ‘Oh, that is a bummer. I need air conditioning like everybody else,’ ” Balcomb said. “I don’t need what everybody else has. and I never really, as a person, wanted what everybody else had. It is a good fit.”