For years, Vanderbilt's women's basketball program has been branded nationally as an offensive juggernaut, and for good reason. Players could score at all five positions and stretch the defense with unlimited shooting range. Vanderbilt's teams scored points in bunches and they were very efficient in doing so.
Vanderbilt Head Coach Melanie Balcomb is in her 11th season and has a rather remarkable streak of ranking no worse than 17th nationally in field-goal percentage in each of her seasons. In those previous 10 years, her teams have an average national rank of 7.8 in field-goal percentage and 13.9 in three-point field-goal percentage.
Plain and simple, Vanderbilt's teams have been able to fill it up, and have been very efficient in doing so.
The question was never whether the Commodores were going to score, it was whether the Commodores were going to be able outscore their opponent.
And if the Commodores had a dreaded "off night," from the floor, their chances of winning decreased significantly.
Vanderbilt's teams of the past were not supposed to win games like Thursday's defensive struggle against Missouri when points were at a premium and it looked at times like Vanderbilt's players were trying to shoot a round ball through a square rim.
But the Commodores did win by a final count of 53-40, despite a forgettable shooting night in which the team made 26.8 percent of their shots.
It wasn't as if the Commodores didn't get open looks against the Tigers on Thursday, but shot after shot clanked off the back of the rim or glanced off the side of it. The rim didn't much care who was shooting, it was equally unwelcoming to all.
Vanderbilt shot 17.1 percent from the field in the first half, but trailed by just one point. Before it got better, it actually got worse, as Vanderbilt's shooting percentage dipped to 15 percent as the team misfired on its first five shot attempts of the second half.
Even while making a dreadful percentage of their shots, the Commodores were still very much in the game, down just seven points, 26-19, with 14:00 to play, following a 7-2 Missouri run. And Vanderbilt needn't look any further than at its defense to know why. The Commodores smothered Missouri with a defense that forced 20 turnovers and kept the Tigers off balance and having to force shots up in order to beat the shot clock. Missouri entered the game with a league-best 253 three-pointers, but Vanderbilt allowed the Tigers to attempt just 15 three-pointers (making three), many of which were contested.
"Obviously, I'm really pleased with our defense and our ability to defend when shooting the poorest I've probably ever had a team shoot in the first half," Balcomb said after the game. "The ability to just play through it is very difficult. I think we showed a lot of maturity with the combination of some upperclassmen, but a lot of underclassmen."
Vanderbilt's 26-19 deficit was its largest of the game, and led to a 30-second timeout by Balcomb. Nothing was going right on offense, and the Commodores were in desperate need of any kind of spark. It just so happened that the spark came on the defensive end, where Vanderbilt dug a little deeper to crank up the dial on its defensive intensity even further. The added pressure led to Missouri forcing passes and shots which enabled Vanderbilt to get into transition.
Once in transition, Vanderbilt was able to find open shooters, and shots finally began to fall as Vanderbilt reeled off 18 straight points from that point on to completely take control of the game. After the game, Jasmine Lister was asked about what ended up being the turning point in the game.
"Probably just the acceptance that that was their run, but now we really need to focus and do what we need to do, convert our defense into our offense and not just get stops, but to be able to execute our offense as well."
The formula worked to perfection. "Just like I drew it up," laughed Balcomb.
Vanderbilt's run began with a layup by Tiffany Clarke, which was followed by open three pointers by Foggie, Lister and Foggie again on back-to-back-to-back possessions. The final three-pointer gave Vanderbilt a four-point lead.
"It was like there was a lid on it," Balcomb said, "and then as soon as (Foggie) hit two threes, I think we all started to relax and realize, 'OK, we can make shots and the rim is open.' So much of it has to do with relaxing on offense and once you are really locked into where you are defensively, it really helped our offense and consistent defense is a lot of what caused that to happen."
When it was all said and done, Vanderbilt had scored a just 53 points, but surrendered only 40. The 53 points were the fewest scored by the Commodores in a win since 2008 when Vanderbilt defeated Auburn, 49-44, in the SEC Tournament. In Balcomb's 11 seasons, Thursday's 53 points were the third fewest scored in a win.
In the past, offensive struggles have typically paved the road to losses, but this Commodore team is proving it can win on nights even when their offense fails them.
"I've had teams in the past that because they aren't making shots, they can't defend," Balcomb remarked.
Such is not the case with this year's squad, which has already had to overcome much more than a poor shooting night. The squad has been riddled by injuries, beginning in the first exhibition game with starting center Stephanie Holzer was lost for the season. Midway through the conference season, starting guard Kady Schrann was also lost and has played just sparingly. Most recently, the SEC's leading scorer in 2012, Christina Foggie, missed four straight games near the end of the regular season. The injury bug has forced the Commodores to play differently because of the losses in offensive firepower.
"It's not just the freshmen stepping up, but everybody understanding what we needed to do to win games and it wasn't going to be on offense and our offense came when we needed it to in the second half, but we are the best defensive team and rebounding team that I've had at Vanderbilt and I think that showed tonight."
It may not have been pretty, but Vanderbilt is proving it can win in many ways, even in ways some once thought was not possible.
Batey Gets First Start Morgan Batey was expecting to receive some playing time in front of her friends and family in attendance at the SEC Tournament, but she didn't expect it would come so soon. Batey, a freshman from Atlanta, made her first-career start Thursday against Missouri, finishing with five points and six rebounds in 24 minutes.
Batey learned that she would be starting before the game, but she tried not to think about the significance of it.
"I tried not to put much thought into it because I just tried to stay level-headed, but it was obviously very exciting just to come back here to Atlanta and start," Batey said. "I just tried to focus on it being just another basketball game and getting out there and doing it."
Batey brought a high level of energy to the court and played a large role in Vanderbilt's prowess on the offensive glass, where the Commodores collected 20 offensive rebounds. Batey was responsible for six of those rebounds.
"Morgan Batey has always been a great rebounder for us and she was fearless for us and she just kept going and going and didn't let anything stop her," Jasmine Lister said.
Although it will be the first of many starts to come, Batey is certain she will not forget her first start in her hometown in the biggest game of the season.
"It was pretty neat," Batey reflected. It was a lot to try and grasp everything, but it was a lot of fun and I'll never forget it."