By David Dawson
NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Although they haven't been involved in many close games this season, the Vanderbilt women didn't panic during Monday's tight finish.
Kristen Gaffney converted two free throws with just under a minute remaining and Christa Reed made two more with nine seconds left to help the Commodores squeak past UT Martin 64-61 and extend their winning streak to eight games.
UT Martin had a chance to tie the game after Reed's late free throws, but the Skyhawks (7-5) were unable to get a shot off on their final possession against Vanderbilt's pressure defense.
Reed finished with a game-high 20 points and Rachel Bell added 10 or the Commodores (9-2), who survived their first down-to-the wire finish in almost a month, dating back to a 62-59 win over Ohio on Nov. 28. In VU's past four games prior to Monday, the Commodores' average margin of victory was 36 points.
Vanderbilt senior Rayte'a Long, who finished with six points and a team-high seven rebounds, said the Commodores' cohesiveness down the stretch was a big key to the win.
"I thought we banded together and stuck to our principles," she said. "We stuck to our game plan a lot better (in the second half)."
Reed finished 6-of-9 from the floor and 6-of-6 from the foul line. The sophomore, who ranks second in the SEC in 3-point percentage (45.7 percent), went 2-of-4 from behind the arc, including making one from the corner with 3:03 to play that gave Vanderbilt a 60-53 lead.
DaiJia Ruffin finished with a team-high 15 points for UT Martin. Jessy Ward had 14 points, going 4-of-9 from 3-point range, and Chelsea Roberts had 11 points and six rebounds.
The game ended a 10-day break between contests for the Commodores, who hadn't played since posting a 97-43 win over Troy on Dec. 10. The long layoff was for final exams.
"We were hungry to play somebody else other than ourselves," said head coach Melanie Balcomb. "I’m proud of how we stuck together. I think this is a really big win for us."
Vanderbilt owned a 35-34 lead after an entertaining first half that featured six lead changes, and then maintained a narrow lead throughout the third quarter. The Commodores appeared to be pulling away early in the fourth period when Rebekah Dahlman scored five points in the span of 40 seconds -- with a jumper and a 3-pointer -- to give Vanderbilt its biggest lead of the game, 54-44, with 8:44 to play.
But UT Martin made things interesting down the stretch, putting together a 10-3 run -- capped by Ward's 3-pointer -- to cut the deficit to 60-59 with 1:56 to go.
The Commodores, however, never relinquished the lead, as Gaffney's two free throws with 56 seconds to go and Reed's two free throws with nine seconds left enabled Vanderbilt to fend off UT Martin's comeback bid.
Balcomb said the victory was a quality win, and could prove to be a great learning experience for her team.
"I have a great deal of respect for their coach (Kevin McMillan) and their program and how they do things," said Balcomb. "This game makes us better. They are very well coached. You learn from games like this. This was a tough matchup for us."
Vanderbilt held on for the win despite the absence of two of its most experienced players in the final minutes. Minta Spears fouled out with 3:13 to play, and Morgan Batey picked up her fifth foul with 2:14 to go. Gaffney, normally a post player, handled the point guard duties down the stretch and delivered a pair of terrific passes that helped Vanderbilt escape with the win.
The Skyhawks -- who are one of the nation's most prolific 3-point shooting teams -- went 6-of-13 from the behind the arc in the first half. But they cooled off in the second half, making just 2-of-9, including 1-of-6 in the fourth quarter, to finish 8-of-22 (36 percent). UT Martin came into the game averaging 10.3 three-pointers per game, which ranked fourth in the nation.
Vanderbilt, meanwhile, entered the game ranked seventh in the nation in field-goal percentage at 49.2 percent. The Commodores shot 45 percent against UT Martin, making 22-of-48 shots. The Skyhawks finished 19-of-48.
Vanderbilt's bench outscored UT Martin's reserves, 26-5, thanks in large part to eight points each from Dahlman and Batey.
Vanderbilt will now have a few days off for the holidays. The Commodores next game is Nov. 29, when they face New Mexico State in the opening round of the Fordham Holiday Classic.