Jence Rhoads’ absence obviously didn’t help things Sunday, not against a No. 19 Kentucky team that likes to dial up the full-court pressure.
But Vanderbilt coach Melanie Balcomb didn’t think the Commodores could use the lack of their senior point guard as a crutch after an 80-71 loss  to the Wildcats in front of 5,372 at Memorial Gymnasium.
Without Rhoads, who sprained her ankle in practice on Saturday, a young Vanderbilt team succumbed to the pressure to the point that it turned the ball over 23 times, which led to 24 Kentucky points. Even worse, it did not have an answer late with its own defense, which allowed UK 48 second-half points on 46.9 percent shooting.
“They can’t press unless they score,” Balcomb pointed out. “Well, they started scoring a lot so they pressed a lot. We didn’t get the job done on the defensive end. We are not going to use Jence as an excuse. If we defend them, they can’t press all night and put the pressure on [freshman guard Jasmine Lister] and our guards that are obviously going to struggle with it.
“There were key times down the stretch that we had three freshmen, a sophomore and a [first-year] transfer on the floor ... and pressure is going to affect them. That is what Kentucky does and they do it well.”
The Commodores (18-9, 9-5 Southeastern Conference) led by seven early in the first half and were up 35-32 at intermission thanks to a combined 25 points from sophomore Tiffany Clarke and freshman Christina Foggie. Kentucky (20-7, 9-5) scored seven straight points out of halftime and took an early lead in a second half that featured seven ties and three lead changes.
Vanderbilt’s Stephanie Holzer scored inside and tied it 50-50 with less than 11 minutes to go, but the Wildcats scored the next 10 points for their largest lead, 60-50, with eight minutes remaining.
Brentwood Academy grad Victoria Dunlap was crucial during the stretch. She scored five points, had two steals and dished out an assist to Keyla Snowden, who drained a 3-pointer to cap off the spurt. The 6-foot-1 Dunlap, who was named the SEC’s preseason player of the year, scored all 10 of her points and had six of her eight rebounds after halftime.
“She started to hang her head on defense and she started not hustling on defense and that just can’t happen,” Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell said. “We got her out and just told her, ‘Just listen, I don’t care if you make another shot. You can change it with rebounding and defense. Go back in and let’s hustle.’ Right away she gets a layup and goes in and now the pressure is off.”
Vanderbilt closed to within four points with less than seven minutes to go. But a technical foul called on the Commodore bench after a personal foul on Hannah Tuomi led to three straight points, and Kentucky quickly built the lead back up to nine with 5:43 remaining.
The game featured 59 fouls and a combined 73 free-throw attempts. Only Holzer fouled out but all five Vanderbilt starters finished with four fouls. Dunlap and Brittany Henderson fouled out for Kentucky, but the frequent whistles didn’t seem to take as much of a toll on a deep Wildcat team, which had nine players log at least 11 minutes.
“It is hard because sometimes you have to back off because you don’t know how the refs are going to call it so it gets you out of how you usually play your game,” Clarke, who finished with 22 points, said. “It is a little rough.”
The same teams had 55 fouls called when they met on Jan. 23 in Lexington, Ky. There was also a technical foul on Vanderbilt in that one.
“Apparently we are not on the same page and I can’t make any comment,” Balcomb said of the officiating. “They are a real physical team and they play a lot of players. In that style, they can afford to foul. They can afford to be that physical and keep going with more players. And we played into their style [Sunday] ... that’s not how you are going to see us play against other people. That is their tempo and their style and that is what they create. That is part of the problem; we let that be created by not being able to get stops where they can’t play that full-court press and attack.”
• Vanderbilt fell into fourth place in the SEC standings.
The Commodores have an identical conference record (9-5) as Kentucky, but the Wildcats hold the tiebreaker because they swept the season series against the Commodores. Still, if Vanderbilt wins its last two games — Thursday at home against Florida and next Sunday at South Carolina — it would do no worse than fourth place.
The top four teams in the conference get an opening-round bye for the SEC Tournament, which will be held March 3-6 at Bridgestone Arena in downtown Nashville.
“It is a nice thing to have,” Clarke said of earning the first-round bye. “If you don’t have the bye, you are playing three, four days in a row. It is good to have the bye so you don’t have to rush yourself.”
• Foggie finished with a career-high 23 points in her first start since Jan. 2. She has been bothered by issues related to concussions. She has missed 11 games this season and, prior to Thursday’s game against Mississippi State, had missed five straight after she suffered her second concussion last month in practice.
• Vanderbilt lost consecutive home games — it fell to No. 4 Tennessee last Sunday — for the first time since the 2004-05 season.
• On the flip side, Kentucky won at Memorial Gymnasium for the first time in 14 tries, dating back to Feb. 5, 1986.
• The Commodores wore pink uniforms and pink shoes as part of their Pink Out to support breast cancer awareness. Vanderbilt was not alone as Kentucky wore pink shoes and pink socks. They were just two teams in the country that took part in the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association Pink Zone initiative, which was held from Feb. 11 through Sunday.