A bye week couldn’t have come at a better time for Tiffany Clarke.
Struggling with what she called a “sophomore jinx,” the Vanderbilt forward used the six days off between the Commodores’ game at Kentucky on Jan. 23 and their home contest against Mississippi a week later to regain her focus and shore up her game.
Her efforts paid off. She impressed head coach Melanie Balcomb, who inserted Clarke in the starting lineup for the Ole Miss game and has kept her there for three straight.
Heading into Thursday’s game at Georgia (6 p.m., CSS), the Commodores (16-7, 4-3 Southeastern Conference) have won all three with Clarke in the starting lineup. Her play in those three (averages of 13 points and eight rebounds) definitely was a factor. “I just feel like I had maybe a mental block and I just needed a chance to refocus and that bye week really did me some good,” Clarke said. “My confidence has increased.”
Clarke entered her sophomore season after a solid freshman campaign. She started in 15 games last year, averaged 7.5 points and 5.3 rebounds in just 18.1 minutes a game. She earned SEC All-Freshman Team honors.
This season, however, the 6-footer from Duluth, Ga., saw her fair share of struggles at the start. After back-to-back double-figure scoring games in late November, Clarke hit a wall. She averaged just more than three points a game in her next 14 contests and her minutes decreased.
“I put a lot of pressure on myself to live up to the expectations of what happened last year, to keep it going,” Clarke, who is averaging 5.3 points and 3.9 rebounds, said. “So I put a lot of unnecessary pressure on myself.”
Balcomb said Clarke has the toughness to be the team’s best rebounder but communication is an area in which she has been lacking.
“I think Tiff understands the game really well. She is really bright. She has very good basketball IQ,” Balcomb said. “When she has to talk it, she doesn’t make the mistakes she has been making, being hesitant. When she is talking it, she is totally focused in each moment. So I feel like the communication we have been stressing has really helped Tiffany and her focus.”
The message seems to have to have hit home as Clarke scored a season-high 23 points and grabbed a career-best 13 rebounds in Sunday’s double-overtime win against Florida. It was the best game of her season and possibly her career, and it happened to be on the day after her 20th birthday with her parents and grandparents on hand to watch.
“I feel like I went through [the sophomore jinx] but I was able to push through it so I’m happy now,” she said.