What started out as a sprint for Tennessee turned into a marathon Sunday.
An early 20-point lead wasn’t a portent of the finish to come against Vanderbilt. The determined Commodores changed the storyline with gritty defense and rebounding along with a barrage of 3-pointers.
The Lady Vols were forced to regain their advantage the hard way. They made a stout defensive stand down the stretch for a 64-57 SEC women’s basketball victory before a crowd of 16,645 at Thompson-Boling Arena.
The victory extended UT’s home winning streak against its instate rival to 25. Vanderbilt has never won here.
“Don’t get me wrong, I’m pleased we found a way to win,’’ UT coach Pat Summitt said, “but our coaching staff doesn’t want to be living on the edge the rest of the season. We want to separate ourselves from the rest of the pack.”
Merideth Marsh scored a game-high 23 points for Vanderbilt (13-5, 2-3), connecting on five of the Commodores’ 10 3-pointers. They shot 52.6 percent (10-for-19) from behind the arc.
Although the circumstances were different, the Lady Vols won by dominating the final seven minutes, as they did in rallying past Florida 66-64 last Thursday. They limited Vanderbilt to five points down the stretch while scoring seven of their final 11 points at the free-throw line.
“Coach tells us that every minute counts and that really is true,’’ UT guard Angie Bjorklund said. “The minute you give in is the minute the other team is going to make a run.”
The final minutes didn’t look like they’d matter after Tennessee bolted to a 27-7 lead. At that point, Vanderbilt’s shooters found their mark. After scoring just two baskets in the first 12 minutes, Commodores swished three consecutive treys in a span of 1:14 to jumpstart their rally.
Tennessee regained its equilibrium before halftime and scored the first basket of the second half for 39-29 lead. Then came a second flurry of Vanderbilt treys over UT’s zone. Three more came in a matter of 1:25, pulling the Commodores to 41-38.
Johnson said that the long-range baskets were scoring a direct hit on UT’s confidence.
“We had to stop their 3s,’’ she said. “Otherwise we were going to get blown out.”
The Lady Vols got the job done. Lauren Lueders’ 20-footer with 15:47 left was Vanderbilt’s final trey.
Still, Tennessee’s work was not finished. The undersized Commodores fought a pitched battle on the boards and held their own, being outrebounded just 32-31.
“That was probably the best rebounding job we’ve done since I’ve been at Vanderbilt,’’ said Commodores coach Melanie Balcomb, who’s in her eighth season.
Vanderbilt’s defense also was thwarting Stricklen, limiting UT’s point guard to zero assists and two points after she scored eight in the first 6 ½ minutes.
“She was a no-show after a good start,’’ Summitt said of Stricklen, who had nine turnovers against Florida. “We’re not going to get to an SEC championship or a Final Four with the way she’s playing right now.”
The Commodores ultimately couldn’t survive without their point guard. Starter Jence Rhoads was out with a hand injury, which was a factor in 27 Vanderbilt turnovers. Marsh, who filled in as the starter, had nine. Furthermore, three freshmen played at least 22 minutes apiece.
“We didn’t execute they way we needed to down the stretch,’’ Balcomb said. “. . . We’re trying to put those freshmen where they don’t have to make decisions late. For us not to be able to execute down the stretch was kind of expected.”