While it might be hard to fathom, Vanderbilt women’s basketball coach Melanie Balcomb saw improvement in the Commodores’ last two games.
Both of those contests ended in defeat for Vanderbilt, after it grabbed big leads on the road. The Commodores were up by 17 against Virginia Tech on Dec. 30 and led by 18 against Mississippi on Sunday.
The fact that Vanderbilt was ahead on the road at all was a victory. In three of it first four road games, the team trailed at halftime, which has played a part in a 1-5 road record.
“The positive is that we have been good for 20 minutes. It is not like we are a bad basketball team,” Balcomb said. “The negative is you have to learn how to win with a lead. You have to learn how to play with a lead when people come, when they put it in another gear. We haven’t responded well.
“We are working on the mental piece. I think the physical piece was there. ... I think we have improved on the road but I think we have to do a better job mentally. I’m a pretty positive coach with a young team right now. I have to be patient and we have to learn from our mistakes and figure out how to not let that happen again.”
Luckily for Balcomb and the Commodores they get a reprieve from the busy travel and host Mississippi State at 7 p.m. Thursday at Memorial Gym.
It will be the Southeastern Conference opener for Mississippi State (8-4) and the first league home game for Vanderbilt (9-5, 0-1). The Commodores have struggled against the Bulldogs lately with their last win against Mississippi State coming on Jan. 10, 2008. Vanderbilt has dropped three straight since and its seniors are just 1-3 against the Bulldogs.
“It is a pride thing for us,” senior guard Jence Rhoads said. “They always give us one of their best games so we’ll be ready for them [Thursday]. They’re really physical and we just have to be ready to fight back.”
The Commodores showed a lot of spirit early, jumping out to a 9-3 start before dropping their last two games. They have leaned on the shoulders of youth, as three of their top five scorers are freshmen. True freshmen Jasmine Lister (13.5 points per game) and Christina Foggie (11.1 ppg) and redshirt freshman Stephanie Holzer (10.0 ppg) have provided a huge lift.
But Rhoads, Balcomb and senior Hannah Tuomi all admitted that inexperience has reared its head in the last two games.
“I think the youth and inexperience shows up throughout the game,” Tuomi said. “In certain points, like big, key moments of the game, they are not really sure what to do, not really sure what to run, trying to push through when they are tired, things of that nature.”
Added Balcomb: “The first game I think we became over-confident and we relaxed a little bit and they made a run and we were shocked by it and didn’t respond well. I think the second game we had that in our head and our focus was shifted to ‘Oh, no we are in the same situation and we played not to lose instead of playing to win.’”
Even with the bumps, Vanderbilt knows that the freshmen will be a big part of this team’s success and, like the rest of the squad, will continue to improve.
“I still think they are playing above their level,” Rhoads said. “They are in a little slump right now which all freshmen go through. But I have no doubt they will pick it back up once they figure things out.”
• Though Foggie has played in five straight games since coming back from a head injury she suffered on Dec. 1 at Bowling Green, Balcomb said her freshman guard is still feeling the effects of the concussion.
Foggie went down hard after taking a blow on a screen against Bowling Green and missed the next two games. The New Jersey native has scored at least 11 points in three games since returning to the lineup. In her last four games, however, she has made only 8-of-36 shots from the field.
“She has a lot of the same symptoms back and has not been herself,” Balcomb said. “That has been tough for her. Not just out of shape but getting a lot of those symptoms back and that is why she hasn’t played to the level she has been playing.”
Balcomb said she hasn’t ruled out giving Foggie extra time off to get back to full strength.
• Thursday’s game will not be aired on WNSR0-560 AM like normal. The station will carry the GoDaddy.com bowl, which features Middle Tennessee State. The Vanderbilt game can be heard on vucommodores.com with play-by-play announcer Charlie Mattos on the call.