Vanderbilt had been here before. Last year when Tennessee visited Memorial Gym the Commodores led 28-15 at the half and earlier this season, Vanderbilt trailed by just three at intermission in Knoxville.
But in each of those games, the teams that took the court in the second half looked vastly different from the teams of the first half. Each time, Vanderbilt became turnover prone and right on cue Tennessee began scorching the nets to the tune of better than 50 percent. The net result? Two Tennessee wins.
Thursday would not be the same. After leading by eight at the half, Tennessee made its patented run, scoring 18 of 22 points to take the lead, and it looked very much like the Lady Vols had seized the momentum of the game. But Thursday was different.
The run by the Lady Vols gave them a 54-52 lead with 9:36 to play, its first since leading 6-5. However, Vanderbilt refused to wilt in front of a large crowd that arrived early and was a factor throughout the game. Instead, the Commodores showed outstanding resolve and displayed a refuse to lose attitude by answering Tennessee's run with a 17-2 run of their own to go up 69-56 with 7:48 to play.
"We just fought back," sophomore guard Jasmine Lister said. In the first game they attacked us and we kind of got on our heels. Now we were ready to fight back and we did."
"They are a great team and we knew they were going to get runs," sophomore center Stephanie Holzer added. "They usually come back in the second half and we were ready."
The Lady Vols never recovered from Vanderbilt's run. But it isn't likely many teams could have on this night as the Commodores rocked Rocky Top, 93-79, for the team's eighth all-time win against the Lady Vols and first since 2009.
The Commodores will lay in their beds tonight with the sound of the ball swishing through the net percolating in their heads. Vanderbilt didn't miss many shots Thursday, shooting 55.7% from the floor as four players scored in double figures. Tiffany Clarke led the way with 23 points and Christina Foggie dropped home 22. Stephanie Holzer and Jasmine Lister also added 19 points. The balanced attack proved to be too much.
It is no secret to the rest of the league that Vanderbilt has a lot of offensive fire power. Last season four players averaged double figures and another averaged 9.9 points per game. There were many weapons that could score, but rarely did the pieces come together on the same night.
The same could be said for this year's team, which features four players that average double figures. Each of the last four games, a different player had led the team in scoring with 20-plus points. Against Tennessee, all four of the team's top scorers surpassed their season scoring average. When that happens, any team is hard to beat.
"We weren't all on, but we were pretty hot, most of us," Head Coach Melanie Balcomb said. "Foggie hitting her threes, Jazz (Jasmine) her pull, Steph and Tiff being unstoppable on the block; that was tough to defend."
The 93 points scored on the night was the most in series history by the Commodores, besting the previous mark of 88 points scored in a loss in 2004. Many of the points came with ease as Vanderbilt players drove open alleys to the basket and scored 52 points in the paint. Meanwhile, Tennessee scored just 28 points in the paint and nearly all of them came from Glory Johnson, who fouled out after scoring 19 points. Vanderbilt also out rebounded Tennessee 41-27.
"It feels good to have a team that is as happy as they are right now and had the fight and determination after they lost the lead to turn it around," Balcomb said. "I just enjoy watching them be so happy. I don't remember a Vanderbilt team that had so much fun playing so hard and that is a good feeling."
An ingredient for having so much enjoyment on the court was the crowd. The 12th largest crowd (12,034) and the biggest since 2008 attended Thursday's game, and the energy inside the gym was felt from the beginning all the way until he final horn.
"It was a great support system," Lister said. "It just made us play even harder. We don't rely on our fans, but it just felt good to have people supporting us."
A large part of the environment was created by the students who came out in force. Many arrived early, hoping to be among the first 1,000 to be rewarded with priority seating for ESPN GameDay and Saturday's men's basketball game. In the end, it wasn't just the first 1,000 students that were rewarded. All 12,034 fans in attendance were treated to one of the better performances by the Commodores in recent years, and a part of the team's play should be credited to the crowd.
"The crowd tonight was just awesome and the environment was the best it has been since I've been here as well," Balcomb said. "The students coming out means everything to this program and the environment and the atmosphere. If the students came to every game like that, we wouldn't lose a game at home. That is such an incredible environment.
"They made a huge difference in this game because when we got tired, we got energy from our crowd."
Feeding off the energy of the crowd is not something the Commodores have typically been able to do against Tennessee, but tonight instead of watching the Lady Vols runaway with a strong second-half run as they have in the two previous meetings and many before, Vanderbilt turned to the crowd for a boost when it needed it the most. And what they received was a boost that came in loud doses, supercharging not only the team, but everyone in attendance.