Vanderbilt fell to defending national champions and 10th-ranked South Carolina 95-82.
The game likely would have been more one-sided if All-American forward A’ja Wilson was not sidelined with an ankle sprain. Wilson is the two-time defending SEC Player of the Year and a leader for South Carolina.
Vanderbilt’s starting lineup of Rachel Bell, Cierra Walker, Chelsie Hall, Christa Reed, and Autumn Newby had no match for the Gamecocks’ height early in the night. Only Newby is over six feet tall, while South Carolina started three players taller than that.
South Carolina jumped out to an early 7-0 lead after the game’s first two minutes thanks to their superior rebounding. The Gamecocks finished the night with 31 rebounds, including 25 on defense.
With six minutes left in the first quarter, Coach Stephanie White subsistuted Kayla Overbeck and Kaleigh Clemons-Green into the game. Shortly after, Erin Whalen entered the game. This taller lineup fared better against a physical South Carolina defense, and Vanderbilt ended the first quarter down by only four points.
South Carolina’s defense was ferocious all night. The Gamecocks seemed to always be in the faces of Vanderbilt’s players and rarely let a shot go uncontested.
Whalen and Reed found success against that defense, though. In the first half, Whalen finished with 15 points on 75% shooting, including a perfect 3-for-3 on three-point shots. Reed added another 14 points.
Notably absent from the scoring sheet early in the game were Bell and Walker, who combined for just five points through the first two quarters. Walker found other ways to contribute, grabbing five rebounds and tallying three assists in the first half.
After two quarters of play, Vanderbilt trailed South Carolina 48-40.
The crowd was passionate throughout the game. After every controversial foul call, the fans screamed, and after every basket, they cheered as if it was the game-winning bucket.
White stuck with a taller lineup in the third quarter, and Whalen and Overbeck led an aspiring comeback. Each scored six points in the third quarter.
Early in the quarter, Vanderbilt’s defense got sloppy and started to give up easy open shots to South Carolina, but the Commodores tightened up as their offense began closing the gap.
With two minutes left in the third quarter, Vanderbilt was down by only two points.
Going into the fourth quarter, South Carolina led Vanderbilt 73-60. South Carolina forward Alexis Jennings sank a buzzer-beating three-point shot to close the third quarter and take some momentum away from the Commodores.
Still, everything seemed set up for a Commodore comeback heading into the fourth quarter. Calls started going Vanderbilt’s way, and Cierra Walker made two three-pointers early in the final quarter.
But South Carolina showed why it was a top-10 team even without its best player.
They went on a 19-7 run that started when they lead 64-62 with less than two minutes left in the third quarter and concluded not long after Overbeck fouled out four minutes into the fourth quarter.
Whalen ended the night with a career-high 25 points.
“She’s had some really good practices and came out and was aggressive,” White said of Whalen.
Reed finished with 23 points, and Walker scored 13 points to lead the Commodores.
“Christa’s been really solid,” White said. “She does so many things that don’t show up on the stat sheet.”
South Carolina’s leading scorers were Alexis Jennings with 27 points and LeLe Grissett who added 22 points. Both shot over 90% from the field and combined for 22 rebounds.
“They were absolutely unstoppable. They played like All-Americans,” White said of the duo.
One thing to note was that for the entirety of the game, White stood on the sideline coaching and encouraging her team, while South Carolina’s head coach Dawn Staley remained on the bench unless she was arguing a call to a referee. The Commodore bench replicated White’s passion by standing up and cheering after every basket. Their energy and intensity can make this team competitive against the mid-level SEC competition they will soon face.
Vanderbilt visits Alabama on Sunday at 2 PM.