Vanderbilt 83, Cal State Fullerton 67

When Vanderbilt almost got beat by Love and Basketball in a pre-season exhibition game, there was talk that the Commodores had been overrated in polls that predicted they’d win the SEC Conference. When Michigan beat Vanderbilt almost two weeks ago, that talk surfaced again.

Last night was my first time seeing the Commodores play in person, so I’m not an expert on the team. And having seen Fullerton play already this season (against UCLA), I noticed they put on an unusually good show. So I’m not sure what the truth is.

What I do know is that it took Vandy, currently ranked 16th, until late in the second half to establish a solid run that put Fullerton away. And this was despite stellar performances by three of their starters.

Vanderbilt came out pressing, but Fullerton responded with their own press and a quick three by junior guard Jasmine Scott, who proved to have the hot hand of the night.

Commodore forward Hannah Tuomi scored her team’s first bucket, and proved to be instrumental as she was so effective in the paint. On a team that lists no centers, Tuomi fills that role, and Vanderbilt’s performance began to decline in the first half when Coach Melanie Balcomb took Tuomi out. With 12:55 to go, Fullerton was up 18-12.

Fortunately for Vandy, Christina Wirth jumped in and hit her first of six three-pointers (she was 6-6 for the night) from deep in the left corner. She nailed another one a few minutes later from the top of the key, but Fullerton seemed like they couldn’t miss a shot. At 8:47, the Titans were still up 24-22.

Then Tuomi came back in. She blocked a shot and scored inside. Senior guard Jennifer Risper, whose huge family from nearby Moreno Valley was sitting right behind me (we were all behind the Vandy bench) screaming, stole the ball and went coast to coast for the score. Vanderbilt was up 26-24 at the 7:21 mark. The teams traded baskets before the Commodores went on a small run. Then Fullerton crawled back, scoring 6 in the last few minutes to Vandy’s 2. It was 38-34 Commodores at the half.

My favorite play came early in the second half on a transition. Wirth was already on the right high block and received a quick pass. She held it and held still for about 1.5 seconds – so that a streaking Tuomi could place her body perfectly right in front of the ball. Pass, swish.

But again, the Titans wouldn’t go away. Besides Scott, sophomore guard Lauren Chow was going off. She hit a few baskets, and the score was knotted at 49 with 15:04 to go. Then Vanderbilt went on a run to put them up 56-49 at 12:32. A Risper steal and layup made her family go nuts, but the Titans’ Scott hit another three. It was 62-56 Vandy with about 10 to go. That’s when the Commodores finally started their run. They got it up to 67-58 with 7:25 to go, and despite some mistakes, they were able to hold the lead and build it. At 3:59, it was Vandy 73, Fullerton 62. They never looked back from there.

For whatever reason, Fullerton felt the need to do a weird back court press on their opponents in the last 10 seconds. Maybe it was just to prove a point, but they didn’t need to do that. They played Vanderbilt tough, and I was impressed.

Tuomi scored 17 points in 20 minutes of play. Wirth had a career high 27 points that included her six three-pointers. And Risper scored a season-high 14 points. For the Titans, Chow ended with 20 and Scott had 19. I was very impressed with all of their performances, but especially Tuomi’s; she’s only a sophomore.

Side notes:

– Vanderbilt travels with a huge entourage. When I first walked in, I saw all these people sitting on their bench and wondered why they let fans sit there before the game. It turns out that besides Balcomb and three assistant coaches, there were five other people. That’s a lot.

– One of those people was a 40-ish water girl. She insisted on having the water cart directly in back of the bench, which would block the view for me, so I moved to the right. It’s a good thing they didn’t care where you sat at Fullerton.

– It was kind of annoying not to be able to keep track of player points, but Fullerton has a pretty small gym and facility, so I guess that precludes a good scoreboard.

– Vanderbilt players and coaches are real big on leaning on one another and putting a hand on a teammate’s shoulder or waist.

Final thought: both teams are better than they played. If Fullerton had played like that against UCLA, they would have given the Bruins a better run. Vanderbilt has a ton of skill, and it shouldn’t have taken them that long to dominate the Titans.

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