KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee coach Pat Summitt has had it with her Lady Volunteers waiting until the last minute to seal their wins.
After squeaking by Florida on Thursday, the fourth-ranked Lady Vols needed a few late shots and defensive stops to get by Vanderbilt 64-57 on Sunday night.
“Don’t get me wrong, I’m pleased we found a way to win, but our coaching staff doesn’t want to be living on the edge the rest of this season,” she said. “We want to separate ourselves from the rest of the pack.”
It’s a dangerous way to live in a Southeastern Conference that appears to have some parity this season. Vanderbilt was looking for its second straight upset of a top 10 team after beating sixth-ranked Georgia handily in Nashville on Thursday.
Despite having an obvious size advantage, Tennessee (16-1, 4-0) struggled to stop the Commodores’ outside shooting as Vanderbilt (13-5, 2-3) hit 10 of 19 from 3-point range.
“Every one of them can shoot lights out, so if you give them room they’re going to hit it,” Tennessee’s Angie Bjorklund said.
Elan Brown hit a shallow jump shot with 1:41 left to cut Tennessee’s lead to 57-55. Glory Johnson, who led the Lady Vols with 17 points, answered by driving through the lane and hitting her own jumper.
The Lady Vols, who hit an uncharacteristically low 57.7 percent of their free throws, sank five of their last six to seal the win.
They made the mistake of leaving Merideth Marsh wide open on the perimeter. Marsh, who is filling in for an injured Jence Rhoads at point guard, led Vanderbilt with 23 points and hit five 3s. Brown added 10.
“(Marsh) is a senior. She’s our rock right now,” Vanderbilt coach Melanie Balcomb said. “She’s doing everything she can. She’s a leader. She’s making shots. She doesn’t want to lose.”
Tennessee used a 14-0 run to take a commanding lead early in the first half. Alyssia Brewer grabbed a rebound and hit a layup to put the Lady Vols up 27-7 with 8:05 in the first half.
Vanderbilt, which has never won in Knoxville in 25 tries, immediately answered with an 11-0 run that included three consecutive 3-point shots. Another 3 by Brown cut Tennessee’s lead to 33-29 with 1:48 before halftime.
But while Marsh hardly missed a shot, she struggled to control the ball in her unfamiliar role at the point. The Commodores committed 27 turnovers—nine by Marsh—leading to 28 Tennessee points.
The Lady Vols used their height advantage inside to score, despite facing a physical Commodores defense. Kelley Cain helped Johnson out in the paint with 14 points, and Shekinna Stricklen added 10.
Vanderbilt struggled down the stretch with a bench that’s short because of injuries and includes three freshmen.
“We didn’t execute on offense the way we needed to down the stretch,” Balcomb said. “We’re trying to put those freshmen in a position where they don’t have to make decisions late. For us to not be able to execute down the stretch was kind of expected.”