It won't go down as the prettiest NCAA Tournament win at Vanderbilt, but a win is a win, and the Commodores couldn't care less how the job got done as long as it got done.
The Commodores showed their mettle and survived an off night from beyond the arc by staying mentally tough and making a number of clutch plays down the stretch to defeat St. Joseph's, 60-54 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament Saturday in Storrs, Conn.
Vanderbilt led by six at the half, by 10 less than four minutes into the second frame and then eight with 9:29 to play, but each time the Hawks rallied back to seize the momentum of the game. With Vanderbilt holding a 10-point advantage with 16:06 to play, St. Joe's scored eight straight points to pull within two.
But Vanderbilt refused to buckle. With 11:14 to play, Jasmine Jenkins found Jasmine Lister on the wing for a three-pointer to go back up by five. Vanderbilt then scored five of the next seven points to lead by eight. However, St. Joe's rallied once again to tie the score at 48 with 6:51 to play.
With the score tied for the first time since 4:13 remained in the first half, Vanderbilt Head Coach Melanie Balcomb called timeout. After being in control for the majority of the game, Vanderbilt was suddenly on the brink of having to play catch-up.
However, just like earlier when Lister stepped up to sink a big three-pointer, the Commodores once again had an answer for St. Joe's run.
This time it was freshman forward Heather Bowe. Out of the timeout Bowe caught the ball at the top of the key and drove in for a layup to put the Commodores back on top for good. Christina Foggie then added a bucket to make it a two-possession game.
"Heather Bowe made a clutch drive down the stretch when it was tied," Lister said. "She got us the lead and that just gave us momentum."
After St. Joe's had once again cut Vanderbilt's lead to two, Tiffany Clarke came down with what was the biggest rebound of the game. With Vanderbilt leading by two, 52-50, with 2:43 to play, Clarke was sent to the line for a 1-and-1 opportunity. She missed the front end with a shot that bounded high off the rim, but she was able to corral her own miss and was fouled on her putback attempt.
Clarke made the Hawks pay by sinking both foul shots. Shortly after, Clarke followed her free throws by hitting an eight-foot jumper that once again answered a basket by St. Joe's. It seemed as if each time Vanderbilt was ready to stretch the lead out for good, the Hawks fought back.
Eventually, the Hawks could not keep pace and the Commodores delivered a knockout blow when Lister made a driving layup that gave Vanderbilt a 58-54 lead with 40 seconds to play. St. Joe's then misfired on its final three shots of the game as the Commodores advanced to face top-seeded UConn Monday.
"It was ugly, but I think the first round and first game usually is," Balcomb said. "I think everybody played hard. I think both teams worked extremely hard on both ends of the floor and as you can see, the shooting percentages were down because I think both of the teams played very good defense and were very prepared. In the end, I think we made some clutch baskets."
The clutch buckets came when St. Joe's was playing at its best offensively. Each time the Hawks looked to take control of the game, a Vanderbilt player was there to make a play.
"Basketball is a game of runs and they made adjustments and they made a run, but we regrouped and had confidence in ourselves," Clarke remarked. "They made a run on us, but we were able to stop it and get it back."
Additionally, the Commodores never lost their poise. No matter how much St. Joe's tried to rattle them, the Commodores wouldn't allow anything to phase them, not even a frustrating night on offense.
"What (the players) talked about after the game was how they stayed together," Balcomb said. "When (the Hawks) made their run down the stretch, our team stayed together; they never started pointing fingers or yelling at each other or getting on each other.
"They are best when they stick together and support each other. They don't like to call each other out and they stayed together. You never saw them get too negative emotionally."
Keeping their emotions in check, helped the Commodores overcome a cold-shooting night in which they made just 2-of-12 three-pointers. It was an off night for Vanderbilt, but St. Joe's tough man-to-man defense had a lot to do with Vanderbilt's offensive struggles. To make up for their offensive shortcomings, the Commodores resorted to strong defense and rebounding. Vanderbilt outrebounded St. Joe's 47-32 and held the Hawks to just 34.5 percent from the floor.
"We focused on getting stops down the stretch and finding the shooters, and finishing plays by boxing out," Lister said, "... so we didn't have to worry on offense (and) we were more comfortable and relaxed even when our shots weren't falling."
Instead of panicking, Vanderbilt was able to stay focused and used a true team effort, that saw eight different Commodores score, to survive and advance to the second round. In the NCAA Tournament, when a team's future is determined on a game-by-game basis, it doesn't matter how you get to the next game, only that you did get to that next game.
Shaw Has Strong First Half
Although she played just four minutes - all in the first half - freshman forward Kendall Shaw came up big for the Commodores on Saturday.
With 6:26 to play in the first half, St. Joe's was able to take a 21-20 lead on a drive by Natasha Cloud. The Hawks appeared to be on the verge of going on a run to extend their lead, but freshman forward Kendall Shaw had other plans.
Following a missed three-pointer by Jasmine Lister, Shaw collected the rebound and was fouled while making a basket in the paint.
On the very next Vanderbilt possession, the Commodores grabbed four offensive rebounds, including three by Shaw, before Shaw made a layup and was fouled.
Shaw's efforts gave Vanderbilt a four-point lead and provided the lineup with a jolt of energy.
"It was very exciting," Shaw said. "I was real excited to get in there with the team and I just tried to focus on what coach was talking about and played with the team."
In her four minutes on the court, Shaw totaled five points and grabbed three rebounds.
"I think my play had a lot to do with my teammates," Shaw continued. "They trusted me and passed me the ball, and if I knew I wasn't open, I'd pass back. I really have to give the credit to my teammates."