All of a sudden Vanderbilt’s apparent rout was no more. Now, the possibility of a first-round exit loomed.
That’s when coach Melanie Balcomb called a timeout -- and just listened.
She observed as her players did the talking. Sophomore Stephanie Holzer was the first to step up. Then Jasmine Lister and Christina Foggie chimed in about changing the body language.
Hearing from their peers did the trick as the seventh-seeded Commodores regrouped and held on for a 67-51 victory over No. 10 seed Mississippi State in the opening round of the SEC Women’s Tournament on Thursday at Bridgestone Arena.
“It was critical at times but they accepted the criticism and changed it,” Balcomb said. “That’s when I knew that we could make a run back and take care of business. They’re leading each other right now and we have really good leadership. On the court, in March, they better be able to lead because I can’t play.”
Vanderbilt (22-8) will receive a NCAA Tournament tuneup in the quarterfinals when it faces No. 2 seed Tennessee (21-8) at 2:30 p.m. on Friday. The Commodores and 13th-ranked Lady Vols split the regular-season series, with Vanderbilt winning 93-79 in Nashville three weeks ago.
Against Mississippi State (14-16), six different players scored the first seven baskets. A 3-pointer by Foggie, who finished with a game-high 18 points, gave Vanderbilt a commanding 24-10 lead with 8:13 left in the first half.
But the Bulldogs, who have lost five straight in the series, chipped away. Their fullcourt press forced 22 turnovers and allowed them to pull within three twice in the second half.
“This is the game that’s the hardest – it is the one you are supposed to win,” Balcomb said.
After Balcomb’s timeout with 12:17 remaining, Vanderbilt settled down and pulled away. Tiffany Clarke sparked a 10-2 run with six straight points, her last two buckets coming after she hauled down big offensive rebounds. She had nine rebounds – six on the offensive end – to go along with 10 points.
Holzer’s jumper capped off the spurt and put the Commodores up 52-41 with 6:44 left. When Mississippi State trimmed it to 10 late, Lister and Foggie responded with back-to-back 3s to ice the win.
“I think we got a little ahead of ourselves,” Holzer said. “We were really anxious at first. We’re in the SEC tournament. Like Coach [Balcomb] said, we needed to get our feet wet. We had the chance to get that out of our system [Thursday] so [Friday] we’re going to approach Tennessee as ‘OK, we’re going to settle down, be patient, we know the court. We know this team. Let’s get back to executing our gameplan.’”
Holzer made Vanderbilt’s first two baskets and finished with 12 points and 10 rebounds. Lister added 13 points as Balcomb picked up her 400th career win in her 19th season as head coach. She has spent 10 years at Vanderbilt, where she ranks second all-time in wins (237) behind only Jim Foster (256).
Vanderbilt improved to 10-0 in tournament openers under Balcomb. It's last loss in the first round was in 1999.
Diamber Johnson led the Bulldogs with 14 points. It was the last game for Mississippi State coach Sharon Fanning-Otis, who, after 17 years at the helm, announced her retirement last month.
• No. 8 Florida 70, No. 9 Auburn 60: Led by 17 points from Jordan Jones, Florida used a big first-half run to pull away from Auburn.
Jones was one of four Gators (19-11) in double figures and she scored five points in a 10-0 run to grab a 12-point lead and separate from the Tigers (13-17).
Florida plays top-seeded Kentucky in a quarterfinal at noon on Friday.
Auburn had a chance to cut the deficit to single digits with more than five minutes remaining. But neither team scored for the next three minutes and the Tigers didn’t pull within eight until 1:33 remained.
Auburn’s Hasina Muhammad led all scorers with 20 points. It was the last game for Tigers coach Nell Fortner, who announced her resignation last week after eight seasons.