Vanderbilt women's NCAA tournament streak in jeopardy

Wednesday, February 20, 2013 at 9:10pm

Around the Vanderbilt locker room, the streak never gets mentioned. But it is too big to ignore.

The Commodores are one of just eight Division I women’s basketball programs to have made the NCAA Tournament each of the last 13 years.

“I don’t think we’ve ever talked about it, at least it being a streak,” senior guard Gabby Smith said. “It is definitely something to be proud of and something to keep in mind just as a source of motivation.”

With just four regular-season games remaining before the Southeastern Conference tournament, the Commodores will need to tap into that motivation if they want to make it 14 in a row.

Heading into Thursday’s game at Florida, Vanderbilt has a 16-9 record with a 6-6 mark in SEC play, tied with LSU for sixth place. Despite losing six of their last 10, the Commodores have an RPI of 37.

Contributing to that mark is a tough schedule, which includes eight games against opponents currently among the top 25. Vanderbilt has won just one of those games.

There are two more chances to beat a ranked opponent before the SEC Tournament — on Sunday against No. 10 Texas A&M and on March 3 at No. 13 Georgia.

Last year, eight SEC teams made the 64-team field. Florida entered the SEC Tournament with 18 wins before picking up another win in the first round that helped garner an at-large bid. This year, all five teams ahead of Vanderbilt in the league standings are ranked and have at least 20 wins.

Getting to 18 wins, and knocking off a ranked team, before the conference tournament begins on March 6 would strengthen the Commodores’ case.

“We don’t have any bad losses. We do eventually need some good wins,” coach Melanie Balcomb said. “It is still really important to just focus on one game at a time. Right now with the injuries it is not a good time to look big picture — period.”

Injuries have slowed the Commodores, who returned all five starters and all but one player from a team that reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament last year.

In a November exhibition game, starting center Stephanie Holzer had a season-ending knee injury. Backup Clair Watkins suffered a similar injury in January. Starting guard Kady Schrann has missed the last three games with an ankle injury.

Shooting guard and second-leading scorer Christina Foggie will not travel with the team to Florida (15-11, 4-8). Instead, she will miss her third straight game with a knee injury that is being reevaluated.

“Right now I’m starting to think it was amazing that I didn’t have these kind of injuries that were decimating to a team,” Balcomb said about the impressiveness of the streak. “We have four kids out and three of them starters. So that is a big change from what you thought you were going to be able to do and what you were predicted to do and your expectations.”

The last time the Commodores weren’t in the postseason was in 1998-99, which was also the last time they failed to win at least 20 games.

Since Balcomb took over prior to the 2002-03 season, the Commodores have won 20-plus games and reached the NCAA Tournament every year. The last three years of Jim Foster’s 11 seasons at Vanderbilt also ended in the NCAA Tournament. Only Connecticut, Duke, Georgia, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Stanford and Tennessee have also earned bids the last 13 years.

“It is pretty impressive,” senior forward Tiffany Clarke said. “It is something you like to brag about.”

Not to mention something they'd like to continue.