On Sunday afternoon March Madness begins in earnest on the Vanderbilt campus with two first round NCAA tournament games in Memorial Gym.
In the first game at 4:10 p.m., the #7-seeded Vanderbilt Commodores will play the #10 seed, Middle Tennessee State University. In the second game, #2-seeded Duke will play #15 seed Samford. On Saturday, the coaches of the four teams and selected players from each team met with the media before practicing on the court in Memorial Gym.
Saturday was an unseasonably warm with a high in the low 80s. and scattered thunderstorms in the area. The predicted high for Sunday is 84 degrees. Since Memorial Gym isn't air-conditioned, fans should expect a very warm afternoon in the gym.
Over the past week, changes were made to the interior of Memorial Gym to accommodate the NCAA's requirements for host sites. Press row is expanded into the space that usually belongs to the student section.
There are four designated areas for pep bands, two at each end of the court. While the pep band for the first game plays in the front section, the pep band for the following game will wait in the section behind them.
All advertising signage in the gym is covered with black plastic to meet the NCAA requirements.
The first two press conferences were for the teams playing the first game on Sunday, Vanderbilt and Middle Tennessee State University. At the press conference, Vanderbilt Head Coach Melanie Balcomb talked about Middle Tennessee:
Obviously, they've got a very balanced team. They’ve got three scorers. They have a point guard that distributes the ball. On offense, they’re very disciplined, patient and get the ball to the people they want to shoot it. They know who their go-tos are.
Defensively, I think they do a lot of different things, and we need to be prepared for anything defensively. They know who they are, and they’re good at what they do. And in the same way, we have to know who we are and basically try to do what we do better than they do what they do. And that’s what it comes down to.
Vanderbilt sophomore post Stephanie Holzer talked about how her team spent the two weeks since the SEC tournament.
I personally think Coach designed a great layout of those two weeks that we were off. We had alumni come back, and we scrimmaged each other, and it was never like we had just had straight practice. She always made sure that we had a game-like quality in there and just competing against each other.
We know this is March so everyone has kind of stepped their game up and just revamped what they do and bring to this team ,so I think that we’ve all done a good job about staying focused, staying ready, and Coach has made sure that we were not just practicing, that we were game-time ready.
After each team's press conference, the team had an hour and a half of practice in the gym. The first 15 minutes of practice were open to the media and closed for the remainder.
When the Vanderbilt players were doing their warmups, a head count revealed that one player was missing. Christina Foggie, the team's leading scorer, was "under the weather", and it was decided it would be better to leave her at the team hotel to rest.
Photos from the Selection Show party showed a protective boot on Clair Watkins' left foot, but she was on the court for practice.
Tammy Boclair, who worked for years in sports information at Vanderbilt with the women's basketball and the baseball team, returned to Memorial Gym to moderate the press conferences.
MTSU Head Coach Rick Insell was asked what Vanderbilt does well and what his team needs to do.
We're very well prepared. They've got great guard play. Lister and Foggie are two of the best around. Foggie leads the SEC in scoring, what does that tell you right there, and then Lister is only 5-4, but God, she's got an engine. And then you've got the big kid inside, Holzer. If she gets on the block, she's very accurate, and then Clarke is just a rebounder. She just go gets it and finishes within five foot, just like Rowe. Both of them kind of mirror each other.
They do a lot of things well. You take the length and size of Tennessee, and they just absolutely destroyed Tennessee. It was embarrassing. But I feel good about our team. I've seen us all year long, and I feel real good about where we're at right now, and I think that we can match up with them. If we knock down shots, we take care of the basketball, then it's going to be a great game.
Ebony Rowe and Kortni Jones were the MTSU players in the press conference. Jones was asked what she thought about Vanderbilt's strengths.
I think their biggest strength, in my opinion, would be their guard play. Christina Foggie is obviously leading the SEC in points per game, and then you have Lister, who just flat out plays hard, and she has a pull-up jumper game and also a 3-point game. So I think defending them will really set the tone. And their post play is just as good. So I think all around, we'll just have to come prepared and be ready to help each other out when we need it. I think if we do that, we'll walk away with the win.
Later in the afternoon, the teams that will play in the second game on Sunday, Duke and Samford, held their press conferences. Duke Head Coach Joanne P. McCallie talked about Samford.
They're a tremendous 3-point shooting team. I don't think I've ever seen a team shoot so many 3's from so many different spots on the floor with so many different players at so many different times. They are extremely well-coached. They have great tournament experience. I'm concerned about their bench players, who are like starters. They play well together, are very unselfish and use the high post more than anybody I know to start an offense. They're very patient. They'll run the shot clock down to eight seconds with no problem whatsoever. They run a little bit, not a lot. They've got a crafty point guard. She's a really nice athletic player and does a lot on floor for them, one of the only players that doesn't shoot 3s.
This week Duke announced that freshman post Elizabeth Williams is suffering from a stress fracture in her lower right leg, but would play through the tournament. Williams participated in practice with her leg heavily protected.
When Samford coach Mike Morris was asked, "What does your team need to do to be a #15 seed upsetting a #2?" he quipped, "Probably need to grow a little bit in terms of height."
Taylor Reece, a 6-3 freshman starter for Stamford, has a strong Vanderbilt connection. She is the daughter of Steve and Dana (Turner) Reese, who both played basketball at Vanderbilt in the 1980s. In addition, she played high school basketball for former Vanderbilt star Rhonda Blades Brown, the coach at Brentwood Academy.
Her dad's about 6-8, her mom's 6-5, and Taylor's 6-3. She's the runt of the bunch. She's a very good player. She can shoot the 3, very skilled. She has been a starter for us since Day 1 as a freshman. She a nursing student, very bright young lady, and we're very fortunate to have her. She fits what we do. She can score around the goal, but she's really skilled, probably second or third on our team in assists, and one of our better 3-point shooters.
Tickets are still available for Sunday's game as well as for the Tuesday night game between the two winners of the first round games. Sunday's game will be televised on ESPN2/ESPN3. In the state of Tennessee, the game will be protected and therefore shown in its entirety. For the rest of the country, it will be part of ESPN's "whiparound" coverage, so Vanderbilt fans outside of Tennessee who want to see the game will probably need to rely on their computers or a local sports bar.
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Photos copyright 2012 by Whitney D. for VandyMania.com