Vanderbilt navigates through foul trouble

March 18, 2012

Vanderbilt's starting center, Stephanie Holzer, was headed to the bench with her third personal foul. She would pull up a seat next to starting forward Tiffany Clarke, who was whistled for her third foul three and a half minutes earlier.

Yet there was still 4:39 to play ... in the first half.

The foul ratio stood at 9:1 in favor of Middle Tennessee State and Vanderbilt's post players were saddled with major foul trouble. But despite the discrepancy in fouls, Vanderbilt remained in front of MTSU, 19-15.

With two of Vanderbilt's players having to sit, Head Coach Melanie Balcomb turned to an already depleted bench for assistance. Vanderbilt's roster includes just 10 scholarship players and one - Maggie Morrison - was lost to a knee injury during the regular season.

Gabby Smith entered the game for Clarke and Jordan Coleman entered for Holzer. After Coleman was called for her third foul with just 1:14 to play in the first half, Clair Watkins had her name called.

But what could have manifested into a major turning point in the game, did not. Despite Vanderbilt's noticeable size advantage being neutralized, at least temporarily, the Commodores did not panic and maintained a 25-18 lead heading into the locker room thanks in part to a strong defensive effort and good bench play.

Vanderbilt's bench only produced a total of eight points, but their overall production Sunday far outweighed the number of points scored. The combination of Coleman, Kady Schrann, Smith and Watkins combined to log 44 minutes, added seven rebounds, two assists and most importantly did not commit a single turnover against a team that is known for applying defensive pressure. The bench players also helped pick up where the starters left off in limiting MTSU to just 22.6 percent shooting from the floor in the first half. MTSU would only shoot 28.1 percent from the floor the entire game.

"Middle Tennessee really had a great gameplan and really took Steph and Tiff out of it in the first half in foul trouble," Balcomb said. "We really had to step up our defense and I am just really proud of our defensive effort and forcing them to shoot (28.1%) from the field like we did."

It was MTSU's gameplan to eliminate Vanderbilt's decisive size advantage early, and the Blue Raiders were successful in doing so. They just could not take advantage of the time Vanderbilt's post players spent on the bench. And much of the credit for that must go to the play of Vanderbilt's bench.

Every time it looked like MTSU may go on a run behind a large contingent of fans, who made the trip up from Murfreesboro, Vanderbilt seemed to close the door with a bucket. Finally at the start of the second half, with Clarke and Holzer still on the bench, MTSU was able to produce the only tie of the game by going on a 10-3 run to even the score at 28.

"Our gameplan was to get their post (players) in foul trouble and I have to credit our guards for getting us the ball and that's exactly what we did," MTSU forward Ebony Rowe said. "So in the first half we executed and when we came back we executed that gameplan of getting their posts in foul trouble."

But shortly after MTSU had tied the game, Holzer and Clarke reentered the game with 15:50 to play and the game still deadlocked at 28. The Blue Raiders didn't know it at the time, but they had missed their window of opportunity and Vanderbilt's reserves had done just enough to keep them from going in front.

With Holzer and Clarke back inside, the Commodores controlled the paint and went on a 20-5 run to put the game out of reach. The two would each commit just one additional foul the rest of the way, and used their physical presence to help ensure Vanderbilt would win a first round NCAA Tournament game for the 12th time in the last 13 years.

"I knew before the tip that they couldn't guard Steph or Tiff or our high-low," Balcomb said. "I saw on film that they take a lot of charges and they are going to fall down a lot and that's what they do. I was very frustrated that we fell into that and that we didn't play smarter. We were prepared for it and they executed really well and got us on the bench. We played much smarter in the second half, but that really limited their time on the floor which limited their points."

Holzer finished with nine points and 10 rebounds and Clarke added five points and four rebounds. Seven of Holzer's points came in the second half, including the basket that started Vanderbilt's second-half run.

"In the past, early on when (Tiff and Steph) got in foul trouble, they got frustrated and emotional and then when they came back in, they were still struggling," Balcomb said. "They couldn't play through their mistakes and move forward; they were living in the past and what had just happened.

"I sat down with Tiff and said, 'you're going to go back out there and you are going to be focused and you are going to play without fouling, and I trust you. I trust that you can come in and make an impact and when this game is over and we win it, you are going to still be on that floor, you will not foul out.' And she looked at me and said, 'OK, I can do that.'

"It's been tough for both of them all season at different times. This is the first time it was both of them in one game. I know I haven't had them that deep in foul trouble that early at the same time. I usually have one or the other."

A strong defensive performance that was boosted by stellar bench play provided more than enough for the Commodores to overcome foul trouble on Sunday, but a repeat performance on Tuesday against a much taller and more talented Duke squad will be much more difficult to survive. But at least, the Commodores know they can turn to bench players and other starters can step up on a night where two starting post players had three fouls before halftime and the SEC's leading scorer, Christina Foggie, managed just seven points for the game.

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