Jence Rhoads played the final eight minutes of this season’s first game against Kentucky with a broken hand. Sunday, in the return meeting, she repeatedly broke down the UK defense and helped the Commodores pull away to a 68-55 victory before 5,216 at Memorial Gymnasium.
The junior point guard scored nine of her career-high 25 points and notched one of her team-high five assists in the final 7:55. She started that stretch with six points in an 8-2 run, which turned a three-point advantage in nine (51-42) and was at the time the largest lead for either side.
Kentucky, ranked 17th and on an eight-game win streak, got no closer than seven the rest of the way.
“I think everyone remembered that game (Jan. 10 at Lexington, Ky.),” Rhoads said. “That was where we got outhustled and outphysicaled. This game we came ready to give it back to them.”
The victory allowed Vanderbilt (18-7, 7-5) to break free — at least for now — from a logjam in the middle of the conference standings. VU entered the weekend as one of six teams from fourth to ninth place separated by a single game and emerged in sole possession of fourth, one-half game ahead of Georgia and one game in front of three others.
All five of the Commodores’ conference losses have come to three teams. The first three were on the road — at Mississippi State, Kentucky and Tennessee — and the last two at home in their second go-rounds against Mississippi State and last Monday against Tennessee, a game they led well into the second half.
“We take a lot of pride in playing at home,” senior guard Merideth Marsh said. “The crowd was really into it (Sunday) and that made it a lot of fun. We knew that we should have beat Tennessee. …People stepped up, and it was awesome.”
No one moreso than Rhoads, the point guard who was challenged at halftime by her coaches to think more about scoring and less about passing.
She came out and made all seven field goals she attempted and got to the foul line six times (she made five). Her 18 second-half points were two shy of her previous single-game high and were nearly as many as the entire VU team scored in the first half (24).
“She is clearly one of the best guards in our league,” UK coach Matthew Mitchell said. “… She just is so good with a change of pace and change of direction, and she handles the ball well with both hands. I just think she had a fantastic day.”
Kentucky (20-4, 8-3) led 25-24 at halftime on the strength of its defense (14 forced turnovers) and offensive rebounding. Over the final 20 minutes, the Commodores cut their turnovers in half (seven). They also increased their rebound total by three while they limited the Wildcats to two fewer.
Ultimately, UK finished with just four second-chance points and eight on the fast break, both of which were significantly less than the first time these teams met, and was held more than 20 points below its season scoring average.
Junior Victoria Dunlap led the Wildcats with 19 points.
“(We) didn’t let them get out and do what they do — be it offensive rebound and score or get out in transition and score,” Balcomb said. “…I feel like we did a better job of breaking their spirit.”
It sure was better than a broken bone.
• The Commodores were quite a sight for the annual Pink Out night at Memorial Gym. Players wore all-pink uniforms as part of a nationwide breast cancer awareness campaign.
The Women’s Basketball Coaches Association’s Pink Zone Week has more than 1,500 participating schools and organizations across the country, with fans encouraged to wear pink too.
• There were a couple of battles on the court that had a decidely area high-school feel Sunday night when the Wildcats' Dunlap, a former Brentwood Academy star, was matched up against Vanderbilt's Jessica Mooney, who played prep hoops at Hillsboro High School.