Two weeks after the conference tournaments ended and a week after the NCAA Selection Show, the 2012 Women's NCAA Basketball Tournament finally got underway this weekend.
For the first time since 2006, Vanderbilt was selected as a host site for the first two rounds of the tournament. Half of the first round games were played on Saturday. On Sunday the other half were played, including a pair of games at Memorial Gym.
The calendar and the flowering trees outside of the gym said, "March" but the temperature said "June." The high temperature in Nashvllle on Sunday was 83 degrees, and in a gym with a roof exposed to the sun, no air conditioning and 4,054 fans, the temperature inside the gym pushed 90 degrees.
Sunday afternoon was the first time the two teams had met since 1992, and a sizable contingent of Middle Tennessee fans made the trek up I-24 to see the game and to cheer on their Lady Raiders.
A group of fans behind the Vanderbilt bench brought big head cutouts of the Vanderbilt players and coach. Before NCAA tournament games, player introductions alternate. When a Vanderbilt player was introduced, the fans showed the faces.
When a player from Middle Tennessee was introduced, they turned their backs and flipped the signs.
The starting lineup included Jasmine Lister, Christina Foggie, Stephanie Holzer, Tiffany Clarke, and Elan Brown. That lineup had only been used once before this season.
Tiffany Clarke scored the first basket of the game to put Vanderbilt on top early. As it turned out, the Dores never fell behind during the remainder of the game, but it wasn't easy.
Jasmine Lister scored early and often. She finished the game with 19 points, none of them coming from behind the 3-point line.
In the first five minutes of the game, Vanderbilt jumped out to an 11-4 lead. Stephanie Holzer finished the game with nine points, but her only points of the first half came on a jumper during that early run.
Freshman guard Kady Schrann, who has started many games this season, scored six points off the bench.
With five minutes left in the first half, Holzer was whistled for an offensive foul, her second foul of the game. Usually Coach Melanie Balcomb takes players out of the game when they pick up a second foul in the first half. But Clarke had already picked up three fouls, and reserve post Jordan Coleman had two, so Holzer stayed in the game. But the gamble backfired, as Holzer picked up another foul in less than a minute.
By that time, Vanderbilt had cooled off and held only a 4-point lead at 19-15 when Holzer went to the bench. Then a 3-pointer by Brown provided a little more breathing room.
Freshman post Clair Watkins and junior guard Gabby Smith helped hold the fort for the final minutes of the half. A basket by Watkins put the Dores ahead 24-18.
Lister made one of a pair of free throws to give the Dores a 25-18 halftime lead. That was the good news. The bad news was that three of Vanderbilt's post players were in foul trouble with three fouls each.
In the press conference after the game, Coach Balcomb said that she talked with her post players at halftime. "You are going to go back out there, and you are going to be focused, and you are going to play without fouling, and I trust you," she said. "When this game is over and we win it, you are going to still be on that floor."
The second half got off to a rocky start for Vanderbilt, as a couple of 3-pointers by MTSU allowed them to tie the score at 28-28 before even five minutes had elapsed.
But then, with both Holzer and Clarke back in the game, Vanderbilt dug in and began to slowly pull away, taking their first double digit lead of the game at 42-32 on a free throw by Lister.
Shortly afterwards, a jumper from Lister put the Dores up by 13 points at 46-33, and MT was never able to come closer after that.
With a minute left in the game, Vanderbilt led by 18 points, their biggest lead of the night. When the final buzzer sounded, the score was 60-46.
With the victory, Vanderbilt survives and advances to the second round on Tuesday night. Their opponent will be the #2-seeded Duke Blue Devils, who defeated #15-seeded Samford 82-47 in the second game on Sunday. Game time is 8:30 p.m. CDT.
Photos copyright 2012 by Whitney D. for VandyMania.com