Confined to fist-pumping on the bench most of the night, Vanderbilt coach Melanie Balcomb walked over to the edge of the court and thanked a boisterous student section — by showering them with ice water.
Fitting, especially since her team had just cooled off No. 11 Tennessee.
In front of a crowd of 12,034 that featured more black and gold than orange, Vanderbilt regrouped after blowing a double-digit second-half lead and stunned the Lady Vols for a 93-79 victory on Thursday night at Memorial Gymnasium. The Commodores snapped a seven-game losing streak to Tennessee, picking up just their second win in the last 25 meetings and just eighth ever out of 67 tries.
“I don’t remember a Vanderbilt team that had so much fun playing so hard and that is a good feeling,” said Balcomb, who is now 2-21 against UT in 10 years at Vanderbilt. “They had the fight and determination after they lost the lead to turn it around. I just enjoy watching them be so happy.”
Kady Schrann’s layup with 17 minutes left gave Vanderbilt (19-5, 7-4) its largest lead, 48-36. But Tennessee (17-7, 8-3) fought back and quickly regained momentum. They scored six straight points and finally got a roar from the Tennessee faithful in it after forcing Vanderbilt into a shot clock violation.
It was the start of an 18-4 run that featured seven points from Shekinna Stricklen. Johnson capped it off with a turnaround jumper to put the Lady Vols in front 54-52 — their first lead since the opening four minutes of the game.
The run stunned the many Vanderbilt fans that represented more than half of the largest crowd for a women’s game at Memorial in six years. But unlike last year when Vanderbilt blew a 31-15 halftime lead at home to UT, the Commodores stayed composed.
“They are a great team, and we knew they were going to get runs. We were ready,” center Stephanie Holzer said. “We individually saw the score and we were like, ‘That’s not right. Let’s go.’ ”
Tennessee’s lead lasted just 29 seconds.
Christina Foggie propelled the Commodores right back in front with back-to-back 3-pointers. She sparked a 17-2 run, hitting her third 3-pointer of the stretch after Elan Brown scrambled to the floor to kick out a rebound and set up the big basket. Tiffany Clarke’s layup off one a Jasmine Lister assist ended the spurt and gave Vanderbilt a 69-56 lead with 7:48 left.
“Vanderbilt was better than us. They were stronger. They were smarter. They wanted it more,” Tennessee associate head coach Holly Warlick said. “We got beat by a better team tonight.”
The Commodores appeared to be the aggressor right from the start. They attacked the glass and chased down loose balls, outrebounding UT 41-27. Tennessee, usually the team with dominant post play, was inferior inside. Vanderbilt outscored the Lady Vols 52-28 in the paint.
Holzer, who played a career-high 37 minutes, scored 15 of her 19 points before halftime. Clarke scored 19 of her game-high 23 points in the second half while hauling down 12 rebounds. They frustrated Tennessee’s forwards as Johnson got into foul trouble and fouled out with 5:59 left. She finished with 19 points but just four after halftime. Meighan Simmons had a team-high 20 points.
Meanwhile, Vanderbilt stayed in command on the outside, with Foggie knocking down four 3-pointers and scoring 22 points. Lister played all 40 minutes and scored 19 points to go along with her career-high 13 assists — the most by a Vanderbilt player in nine years.
“If we have everyone on at the same night … we’re unstoppable,” Holzer said. “That’s how we felt tonight.”
With 44 seconds left, as the Vanderbilt players walked down the floor with a 12-point lead and the outcome certain, the Commodore faithful rose to its feet to give a standing ovation.
Ninety minutes before tip-off, the students rushed through the doors. The first 1,000 students in attendance were to receive priority seating for ESPN’s College GameDay on Saturday morning and the men’s basketball game against No. 1 Kentucky later that night.
Were they enticed by the incentive? Perhaps. But that didn’t matter to Balcomb. She’ll take them any time.
“The environment is the best that it has been since I have been here. There was more black and gold there has ever been,” she said. “If the students came to every game like that, we wouldn’t lose a game at home. We would be unbelievable at home.”