Feb. 21, 2007
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NASHVILLE - There is nothing more beautiful in the game of women's basketball for Vanderbilt Head Coach Melanie Balcomb than the three-point shot.
In fact, Balcomb is fond of saying that in a sport in which only a select few are able to elevate above the rim, the three-point shot is to women's basketball what the dunk is to the men's game.
"I think it is pretty to watch," Balcomb said this week, just moments after watching her Commodores drain eight three-point field goals en route to an easy 83-65 win over visiting South Carolina. "I think the three-point shot is something that we generally do better than the men. In the men's game the dunk is so exciting and in the women's game you have to execute because we are all pretty much under the rim. We have to execute and I think being able to make three's consistently like that is pretty."
If there is any truth at all to Balcomb's assessment, then her Vanderbilt team is quite a sight to behold.
Vanderbilt, tied for third in the Southeastern Conference and facing crucial games against LSU and Tennessee this week to close out its conference schedule, leads the nation in three-point shooting at 43.4 percent and boasts the nation's top three-point shooter in senior guard Caroline Williams.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, considering their coach's affinities, it is the three-point shot more than anything else that has propelled the Commodores, 23-4 overall and 9-3 in the SEC, to their best record in several years and has them poised for a run deep into the postseason.
"I guess that shouldn't be much of a surprise," said sophomore forward Christina Wirth, who is shooting a respectable 38 percent from three-point range on the year but ranks just sixth on her own team in that category. "I know a lot of time in her post game press conferences she talks about how she really likes it when the ball goes in the basket, but she really does. We spend time pretty much every day shooting, so when we get into games we are shooting shots that we have shot a million times so it is just automatic."
It is Williams, the reigning SEC player of the week, who is leading Vanderbilt's long range barrage. Her six threes on eight attempts Sunday against South Carolina matched the six three-pointers she hit three days earlier against Mississippi State. She is now leading the nation by connecting on 50 percent of her three-point attempts.
The Commodores have nailed 22 three-pointers in just the last three games alone, with 14 of those coming from Williams.
"It is really about getting a feel for the game," Williams said. "The screens that Tina and Carla set all night are really what do it. It just so happens that the past few games, I have gotten some open threes."
Williams' long distance success is not as coincidental as she might make it seem. She often can be found several hours prior to a game getting extra shooting in and often remains on the court long after her team's practices are over to get even more shooting work in. It is a commitment, Balcomb says, that is evidence of an exemplary work ethic.
"The better she does, the harder she works," Balcomb said. "With some people, the better they do the less they work. But once she started getting a little success she started working even harder and just blossomed and flourished in our system and in our program. She is now a leader and shows other kids and the young players this year how to work hard. If there is anything that Caroline is going to pass down, it is going to be her work ethic. It is incredible."
Williams attributes much of her and the team's outside shooting success to the tutelage of assistant coach Lisa Cermignano, who was a prolific long range shooter during her collegiate career at George Washington University, and who Balcomb brought onto the staff prior to this season.
Cermignano says she has preached consistency to the Commodores this year in trying to get them to the point where their motion and footwork is the same on every shot.
"I just try to get these guys to realize that no matter where they are at all times, they need to be ready to shoot the ball," Cermignano said. "It is the same shot no matter where they catch it or how they catch it. They need to keep their eyes on the rim, recognize the defense and have no fear."
And, more than anything else Cermignano says, just keep shooting.
"As a player you just do it," she said of having the confidence to take any shot at any time. "As a coach you can preach it and you can teach it and you can drill it. But it doesn't take until they actually taste that success for themselves, which they are doing right now. They believe now. They really believe because they are doing it themselves."
For Williams and her fellow seniors, forward Carla Thomas and guard Dee Davis, there is added motivation these days as the end of their collegiate careers nears.
As successful as the team has been shooting the ball all year, there is a different kind of success they are after and which they know they have only one last chance to achieve. They want and SEC Tournament Championship and a deep run into the NCAA tournament.
"We have all been there before," Williams said of Davis and Thomas. "We have played in SEC tournaments and we have played in big games and we have also been here when we have won those big games. Some of the younger girls haven't gotten that feel or that taste of winning a big game like against LSU or Tennessee. Once we do that then they understand what that feels like. I think we have that feeling so hopefully we can show them what it feels like."