It doesn't matter who we play. If we play our best, we'll win.
- A reporter's paraphrase of Lady Vols comments prior to the Vanderbilt game.
Of all the teams in the SEC tournament, Vanderbilt was the one that worried me the most. While Kentucky rightly deserves the title of best team in the conference (Tennessee excluded), Vanderbilt is the one that is best equipped to deal with the strengths of the Lady Vols. They're not the tallest and they're not the fastest opponent in the league, but they are most certainly the smartest, the most disciplined, and the most capable of throwing Tennessee off their game.
Vanderbilt's coach, Melanie Balcomb, knows exactly what kind of players she gets at the Harvard of the South; her players are all very bright and thrive off academic challenges, and her offense is designed to provide exactly that type of brain food. Vanderbilt runs a greater variety of offensive sets than any other team in the league, and really, nobody else comes close. (During the game, the announcers made mention of Vanderbilt having sixty-four different offensive sets. True or not, just being in that ballpark is rather daunting.) Balcomb also scouts very well; she finds the chinks in an opponent's armor, and zeroes her players in on those weaknesses with tremendous precision.
Vanderbilt came to the game Saturday ready to play - and to beat - Tennessee. But this time, the Lady Vols were more than ready.
In scouting Tennessee, Balcomb knew full well that the interior presence of the Lady Vols was more than any team in the league could handle. Kelley Cain had just set the UT season record for blocks, and the trio of Cain, Alyssia Brewer, and Glory Johnson provided an array of interior talents that just couldn't be matched. Add in Alicia Manning, and Tennessee packed a rebounding armada of height and jumping ability that is on par with several men's basketball teams.
So instead of trying to outrebound Tennessee (UT won the rebounding battle 38-20), Vanderbilt focused instead on stopping Tennessee after the rebound. As soon as a Lady Vol came to the ground after jumping for the ball, one or two Commodores were pressed tightly against her, cutting off passing lanes and pivoting space. The strategy gave Vanderbilt two advantages: first, the fast break (Pat Summitt's Post Highway) disappeared as the other Commodores had time to run back and get set defensively; second, Tennessee's height became a disadvantage. Those wonderfully long limbs no longer had room to move, and elbows suddenly became foul liabilities as twisting around could easily lead to illegal contact with an opposing player.
On the offensive end, Vanderbilt was just begging Tennessee to foul. Commodores would press for a layup, but often tried to use stutter steps and lean-ins to draw contact with a Lady Vol, hoping for a friendly whistle. Often, the objective appeared not to be scoring so much as drawing fouls. It was a strategy that may seem odd in a game where the final point tally is the only thing that matters, but it may very well have been the best strategy a team could employ against Tennessee, for once the UT starters were in foul trouble, the backups were much easier to handle.
Vanderbilt had the perfect player to achieve both goals: Hannah Tuomi. The 6'-1" junior forward was often the tallest black and gold player on the court and had the unenviable task of taking on the trees in the middle. But Tuomi has a Dennis Rodman like quality to her play - that irritating ability to pester and annoy relentlessly throughout a game without ever seeming to be whistled for it. Her sense of space and timing is uncanny, and she was often responsible for most of the Lady Vols' turnovers throughout the game.
But, like the Lady Vols said, they are good enough to beat any team in the league so long as they play their best. On Saturday, Vanderbilt received Tennessee's best shot.
Tuomi was irritating. Everything she did was clean, but her particular brand of pressure was bothersome enough that I was thrilled to see her foul out, though the game was out of reach by that point. She trapped rebounders on the defensive end and leaned in for fouls on the offensive side of the court. Tuomi kept within elbow's length of Tennessee's post players as often as she could, thereby removing space and increasing the likelihood of a foul when the elbow moved her way.
Earlier in the season, this tactic may very well have worked; Saturday, the Lady Vols were ready. UT was ready for the lean-ins on layups and kept their bodies spaced far enough out that the calls never came. (In fact, Vanderbilt missed several point-plank shots because the failed attempts to draw contact left them off-balance.) The rebounding traps showed some success, but the overall balance of the tactic still favored Tennessee once they figured out how to space themselves for the first pass after a rebound. The fast breaks were gone, but the rebound trap was defeated and the halfcourt offense could proceed as planned. Most telling, Hannah Tuomi had exactly zero free throw attempts in the game; not a single attempt at drawing a shooting foul went in her favor. The entire Vanderbilt team took only eight free throws overall.
It was a game of maturity that the Lady Vols needed to have - both for themselves and for their fans. As their in-state rival, Vanderbilt is probably more focused on trying to beat Tennessee than any other team in the league (which is a large part of the reason that Tennessee and Vanderbilt hold the previous six SEC tournament titles - three apiece). But even though Vanderbilt had an infuriatingly terrific game plan for Tennessee, the Ladies proved themselves to be just too strong of a team to be stopped by any means.
As I said, Vanderbilt worried me the most. That is not to say that Kentucky can't pull off the upset in the championship game, but I now feel comfortable that the game is Tennessee's to win or lose.
And I feel comfortable in believing that they'll win.