A month ago, the Vanderbilt women’s basketball team chalked up a road loss against powerhouse Tennessee to inexperience. Wide-eyes and nerves were the culprit in a sluggish first half that the Commodores never overcame.
On Sunday, in a rematch with the fourth-ranked Lady Vols at Memorial Gymnasium, Vanderbilt was the one in the driver’s seat, the one that looked prepared — for 30 minutes, that is.
Up by 13 at halftime, the Commodores failed to hang after they held Tennessee to just 15 first-half points. The Lady Vols rallied and once again nipped Vanderbilt 65-57  in front of 11,386, which was the 14th largest crowd in school history.
The Commodores had won all 12 of this season's home games before Sunday. It looked like they would stay perfect at Memorial but they allowed 50 second-half points and lost for the 57th time in 64 meetings between the programs. UT won its sixth straight in the series.
“I think when Tennessee made their run there was a little bit of doubt. I think that is the biggest thing we need to overcome,” Vanderbilt guard Jence Rhoads said. “We believed at the beginning of the game and I think we believed at the end. There is just one moment where Tennessee went on our run and we hesitated a little bit. I don’t know if doubt is the right word but we hesitated and they pursued.”
Tennessee (24-2, 12-0 Southeastern Conference) has won 15 straight since losing to Baylor, now ranked No. 1, on Dec. 14.
The Lady Vols were in a bind early, though. They shot a season-low 20 percent (5-of-25) from the field in the first half with 12 turnovers and were scoreless the last 5:33 before halftime. The 15 points were the third-lowest in a first half in program history.
“I thought we would never ever catch up,” coach Pat Summitt said. “They had more energy, more passion. We had to dig ourselves out of a hole. I have to give our team credit — they pulled together and made a commitment to commit to our defense and our board play and that’s what it’s all about.”
The Commodores (17-8, 8-4) led by 12 early in the second half and were up 41-33 after Rhoads’ jumper with 11:12 to go. Then they went nearly six minutes without a basket from the field and made just one free throw during that stretch.
That is when Tennessee slowly made a charge. The Lady Vols went on an 11-1 spurt, which included three three-point plays — Lauren Avant made a basket and free throw, then hit a 3-pointer on the next possession and Meighan Simmons’ lone trey gave Tennessee a 44-42 lead — its first since early in the first half –with 5:55 remaining.
The freshman duo went scoreless in the first half but combined for 20 points after halftime, including 11 from Avant off the bench.
“[Simmons] and Lauren they really stepped up, man,” Tennessee junior Shekinna Stricklen, who finished with a team-high 14 points, said. “If it wasn’t for them, we probably wouldn’t have won this game.”
The teams exchanged baskets the next two minutes and Vanderbilt took its last lead when Rhoads hit two free throws for a 49-47 edge with 4:24 remaining. From there, Tennessee went on an 8-0 run capped off by a steal by Simmons, who pushed it up to Brewer for the layup and a six-point lead.
Simmons all but iced it late when she picked off a pass from Rhoads, who had a game-high 15 points along with six turnovers. Simmons then raced to the other end for a layup and a 58-51 lead with 1:26 remaining.
Vanderbilt committed 22 turnovers for the third time in the last four games and Tennessee scored 16 points off the miscues, 12 in the second half.
"I think once they got more aggressive again and came after us, we got on our heels defensively and didn't do the job that we did [in the first half],” Vanderbilt coach Melanie Balcomb said. “Then you get tight on offense because you can't get the stops you were getting in the first half...the frustrating piece is until the last 8 minutes, we were beating them and they are the No. 4 team in the country and there’s a lot to be said for that.”
Redshirt freshman Stephanie Holzer added 10 points off the bench and Hannah Tuomi grabbed a game-high 12 rebounds to go along with seven points for the Commodores, whose four-game win streak was snapped.
“It is disappointing,” Tuomi said. “You come so close and then you can’t really turn it around. If you don’t recover from that, it can cost you the game.”
• Former Vanderbilt standout Chantelle Anderson’s jersey (21) was retired at halftime. She became the fourth Vanderbilt player, along with Clyde Lee (43), Perry Wallace (25) and Wendy Scholtens (40), to be so honored.
Vanderbilt does not retire the numbers, just the jerseys. Holzer currently wears 21 for the Commodores.
Anderson, who played for VU from 2000-03, is the school’s all-time leading scorer — men’s or women’s — with 2,604 points. A native of Vancouver, Wash., she shot a 65.1 percent from the field during her career, which is both a school and Southeastern Conference record. The two-time Kodak All-American was drafted second overall in 2003 by the Sacramento Monarchs. After six years with three different teams, she retired in 2009 due to injuries.
Anderson is now an assistant coach for the women’s basketball team at Palm Beach Atlantic University (Fla.) and is working on her autobiography, “The Sane Side of Crazy.”
In addition to Anderson’s ceremony, more than 30 former Vanderbilt women’s basketball players were honored as a part of the school’s first women’s basketball reunion.
“There are very few times in your life that you get recognized for doing something you absolutely love and this is one of those times,” Anderson said. “It was so surreal to see my jersey unveiled in Memorial Gym, somewhere I was so honor to play for four years. I’m speechless.”
• Vanderbilt’s Christina Foggie missed her fifth straight game after suffering her second concussion last month in practice. The freshman guard has played in just 14 games due to several injuries and is listed as day-to-day. She is averaging 10.6 points a game.
• Tennessee starting guard Angie Bjorklund missed her fifth straight game due to a foot injury and wore an orthopedic boot on her right foot. She is fourth on the team with 11.3 points per game.
• Summitt opened up her postgame press conference afterwards by addressing a situation that happened after the game. Her players huddled up on the Vanderbilt star at mid-court after the game. It appeared that one of the Vanderbilt campus police officers said something to one of the Tennessee players.
“I just want to clarify that our team always goes to the middle of the court and they have a prayer,” Summitt said. “[Just] in case anyone questions what happened out there because we had a little conflict going on.”