KNOXVILLE – Generally, teams ranked fifth in the country don’t need any help. Especially when said team is Tennessee, is coached by Pat Summitt and is playing on its home floor.
Still, Vanderbilt gave the No. 5 Lady Vols an unnecessary gift Saturday. The Commodores missed 20 straight shots during a nine-minute span and shot just 18.9 percent in the first half.
It doesn’t take a Vanderbilt grad student to realize that won’t many games, especially against Tennessee.
It was a stretch VU couldn’t quite overcome as it lost 68-56  in front of 17,853 at Thompson-Boling Arena, which was Tennessee’s biggest home crowd in three seasons. The orange-clad arena witnessed a dubious streak continue for the Commodores — they fell to 0-26 in Knoxville.
“Like always when we come here we don’t get off to a good start,” Vanderbilt coach Melanie Balcomb said. “I think we spent the first half looking at the height advantage, looking at the colors of the jersey and looking at the big crowd.”
A young Vanderbilt squad made just two of 24 shots and fell behind 21-5 with 7:51 left in the first half.
The Commodores, who had three freshmen playing their first game at Thompson-Boling, seemed to be wary of going inside and challenging Kelley Cain. UT's 6-foot-6 center finished with four blocks and 13 rebounds.
Instead, they opted for outside shots, which didn’t work either. They missed their first 11 3-pointers.
When they did go inside, their shots appeared off-balanced or altered. That led to a season-low shooting percentage in the opening half — they were 7-of-37 — and the fewest points in a half (17) since the Commodores mustered just 10 against LSU on Jan. 13, 2008.
“I thought we did a much better job in the first half than in the second half of disrupting them and taking away some open looks,” Summit said. “But as the game wore on, I just thought they got better and better and more efficient.”
Despite the poor shooting in the first half, Vanderbilt (12-6, 3-2 Southeastern Conference) trailed just 29-17 at halftime.
Freshman Jasmine Lister, who was 1-of-8 before intermission, provided a spark with four straight points out of the break and quickly cut the deficit to eight.
But the Commodores went cold again, making just two baskets over a seven-minute span.
Tennessee (17-2, 5-0) took advantage with an 18-5 run for a 45-26 lead with 14:16 to go. The lead grew to 22 — the biggest of the game — shortly thereafter but Vanderbilt didn’t quit. The Commodores shot 48.6 percent in the second half, capitalizing on Lady Vol turnovers.
“Obviously [Balcomb’s] team never had any quit and did a great job,” Summitt said.
Vanderbilt put together a couple mini-runs, which were highlighted by fastbreak baskets, and big 3-pointers from Lister and fellow freshman Christina Foggie. The duo combined for 30 points, 25 of which came after halftime.
“I felt like I got a little too anxious in the beginning,” Lister said. “I was rushing my shot. I was taking quick shots. Once I relaxed, I got into the flow and everything. But I felt we just waited too long.”
Jence Rhoads’ jumper with 3:20 left trimmed the lead to single digits for the second time in less than a minute as the Commodores trailed 62-53. Foggie had a chance to cut it to seven on the next possession but missed a layup that she altered due to pressure. From there, Tennessee killed time and Vanderbilt made just one basket the rest of the game.
“I think we definitely had a chance and we had opportunities. We had layups. We had good shots. I thought we just didn’t hit,” Balcomb said. “Once we got down 21, 22 points, all of a sudden we were relaxed and made shots that we normally make. When it got close again, within [nine], we got tight and missed shots that we had. I think you saw two very different halves, but a lot of it depended on whether we were in the game or not and the pressure we were feeling.”
• Lister led Vanderbilt with 17 points. Foggie, in just her second game back after missing due to post-concussion syndrome, had 13 and Rhoads added 10. For Tennessee, Meighan Simmons scored 17, while Angie Bjorklund and Glory Johnson each added 14. Kamiko Williams finished with 13.
• Tennessee has now won eight straight since losing at Baylor on Dec. 14. The Volunteers are 10-0 at home.
“We just need to bring more experienced players,” Balcomb said. “Nine of my 14 kids are freshmen or sophomores right now. I expect them to be better the next time we play them and the next time we play them in this environment.”
• There were just 24 fouls in the game — 15 against Vanderbilt — and only 16 free-throw attempts. Tennessee was 8-for-12 and the Commodores were 2-for-4, which is a season-low in attempts.
• The Volunteers outrebounded Vanderbilt 52-39. Still, Summitt wasn’t satisfied. “Our rebounding could have been better,” she said. “We’ll take it. It is a win, but we’ll learn from it.”