No. 24 WBB topples No. 7 Tennessee

Jan. 11, 2009

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Melanie Balcomb tried to treat Tennessee just like any other opponent her first six seasons at Vanderbilt.

This time around, she listened to those who told her she was wrong.

So she played “Rocky Top,” dressed her male practice players in orange down to headbands, cranked up the crowd noise over the speakers and even tossed a Tennessee mat in front of the locker room door the past two days. The effort paid off Sunday as No. 24 Vanderbilt beat the seventh-ranked Lady Vols 74-58 for only their seventh win all-time in this interstate rivalry.

“In the past, I felt like I made a mistake,” said Balcomb, who hadn’t beaten Tennessee in her first six seasons at Vanderbilt.

“It is a big deal, so I thought we’d do a bunch of different things. I can’t tell you everything, but we had fun.”

Not as much fun as her Commodores had in the game itself as they snapped Tennessee’s 16-game winning streak in this series. Jessica Mooney led five Commodores in double figures with 15 points. Jennifer Risper and Hannah Tuomi each had 12, Merideth Marsh added 11 and Christina Wirth had 10.

“It’s pretty awesome,” said Risper, a senior.

Tennessee (12-3, 1-1 Southeastern Conference) has simply dominated this series between schools separated by 190 miles along Interstate 40, winning 52 of the first 58 by the Lady Vols’ count. This loss keeps coach Pat Summitt stuck on 995 wins as she closes in on 1,000 for her career.

“I’m really disappointed in our team,” Summitt said. “I don’t want to take a thing away from Vanderbilt. I thought they did a super job. They were a lot tougher than us defensively and a lot more aggressive offensively.”

Vanderbilt (13-4, 2-0) was the preseason pick to win the SEC title, and the Commodores used their speed and experience to grab their first win over the Lady Vols since Feb. 2, 2002, also on their home floor at Memorial Gym.

These teams last met in the SEC tournament semifinals with the Lady Vols winning by 25 before winning their second straight national championship and eighth overall.

The Lady Vols came in having won five straight, a streak that included a comeback from 23 down at Rutgers on Jan. 3. But Summitt has a much younger team this season, starting three freshmen and a sophomore. That makes Vanderbilt seem grizzled in comparison with two seniors and two juniors in the starting lineup.

2648745.jpegPhoto by John Russell

Vanderbilt carved Tennessee up by driving straight to the basket over and over, outscoring the Lady Vols 40-30 in the paint. The Commodores forced 23 turnovers, which matched Tennessee’s worst this season, and had a 23-8 advantage off turnovers.

“We’ve lost before, not quite this horribly,” Fuller said. “But we’ve just got to learn from our mistakes. That’s what anybody does in this situation is learn from everything that we did wrong.”

Balcomb said she knew her players could take advantage of the talented Lady Vols’ youth and inexperience by being aggressive offensively.

“It’s a big adjustment, a big learning curve, and we knew they’d be young,” Balcomb said.

The teams swapped the lead in the first half before the Commodores blew open the game by finishing the period with a 12-0 run for a 31-23 lead at halftime. They took the lead on Jence Rhoads’ basket with 2:22 left at 25-23, taking advantage as Tennessee went scoreless after Johnson scored with 4:40 to go.

Vanderbilt stayed hot in the second half and pushed its lead to 38-25 as Wirth hit a 3-pointer from the right corner in front of her bench.

Angie Bjorklund’s 3 pulled Tennessee within 47-42 with 10:51 left. Tuomi hit two free throws, then Risper drove the lane for a layup as the Commodores scored nine of the next 10 points.

Then the Commodores just kept padding their lead and were up as much as 21 twice. They just missed matching their biggest win over Tennessee, a 17-point margin back in 2002. Now their challenge is to use this as a step for the rest of the season.

“We found out what we’re good at, like what our strengths are,” Marsh said.