Doing It With Defense

By Jeff Lippman - March 24, 2008

When Vanderbilt lost in the second round to Bowling Green in the NCAA Tournament last season, coach Melanie Balcomb probably thought her Commodores had missed out on a golden opportunity.

The Commodores were a senior-laden team who had just come off an impressive run to win the SEC Tournament. This was supposed to be their time. Instead, little Bowling Green ended their run prematurely.

With the season's end, so did the careers of Vandy stars like Carla Thomas, Caroline Williams and Dee Davis. The Commodores' two leading scorers and their best ball distributer gone, they weren't expected to compete at as high a level this season. How could they? Who would score the ball?

Well, as her 'Dores prepare for a second round matchup with the 5-seed West Virginia out of the Spokane regional, Balcomb and her team are back and looking for second-round redemption. And they're doing it with defense.

"This is a different team in the NCAA than last year," Balcomb said during her Sunday practice press conference. "It's great to have the ability that if you aren't perfect on offense or you aren't hitting shots because you are tight or there is pressure. You really have to count on your defense in the postseason and I really think this is the best defensive team we've had. We are able to create offense off our defense and not just try to stop people."

It proves just how important defense is, especially in the more fundamental women's game.

Gone from 2007 are two double-digit scorers and a point guard who averaged over 5 assists per game last season. That's a lot of production to make up for. And the 'Dores didn't really do that, as their leading scorer is junior guard/forward Christina Wirth with just under 13 points per game. And senior center Liz Sherwood - the team's lone senior - is the only other Commodore in double figures at 11 a game.

But here Vanderbilt is, one win away from advancing further than they did a season ago. And all because their defense has tightened up.

Vandy is still a young team. Sherwood and Wirth make up the experienced leadership, but at the core, this is just a group of sophomores and freshman.

Balcomb mentioned pressure and that is just what Vandy's motto is this postseason: "No Pressure." And the reason they were able to defeat a tough 13-seeded Montana club and hold them to a season-low 47 points, was because that defense allows the offense to feel no pressure.

And that should work against Monday's opponent West Virginia. The Mountaineers are coming off a near-shocking defeat of New Mexico in which they narrowly escaped, 61-60. They needed 22 points, 11 rebounds and the game-winning three with 17 seconds left from Chakhia Cole just to secure the victory.

If the rest of the Mountaineers don't pick up the slack, it will be a long night for West Virginia.

"They play extremely hard," said West Virginia coach Mike Carey. "They're very intelligent players; they play as a team. They move the ball extremely well. They post extremely hard with their fours and fives against the zone and the man."

And the most important thing that Vanderbilt took away from their opening round meeting with Montana: Energy.

No Commodore played more than 30 minutes in Saturday's game against the Lady Grizz. "We're just going to have fresh legs going into the next game," said junior guard Jennifer Risper.

And that, coupled with his own team's poor shooting, has the West Virginia coach more than a little worried.

"Sure you'd like to see them play 40 minutes but that didn't happen," Carey said.

Vanderbilt is rested and ready to advance further than they could last season. And defense makes the Sweet 16 that much sweeter.

Posted by Jeff Lippman at 10:48 AM on March 24, 2008

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