The Vanderbilt Commodores lost their opening game to the North Alabama Lions 74-71 on Tuesday night at Memorial Gym.
Forward Autumn Newby had a career-high 30 points and picked up 10 rebounds in the losing effort. It was UNA’s first game as a Division I basketball program.
Vanderbilt picked up the pace late in the game, but a 28-11 deficit after the first quarter was too much to overcome.
“We’re not going to win a lot of ball games if we let teams shoot 75% in the first quarter,” head coach Stephanie White said. “Our attention to detail, our attention to the scout on the defensive end of the floor has to be better. We’ve got take better care of the basketball as well. But for us, our biggest challenges and our biggest points of emphasis have been defensively. We’ve been better, but we’ve still got a ways to go.”
The Commodores came out of the gate sloppy in the first quarter, missing most of their opening shot attempts. Things were not much better on the defensive end, as North Alabama was able to exploit the Commodores from long range, shooting 75% on four three-point attempts in the first quarter. The Lions ran the fast break well and caught the Commodore defense off guard in transition, forcing key players into early fouls. 18 of their 28 first-quarter points came on layups.
Greek phenom Mariella Fasoula ran into foul trouble, as she picked up two fouls in her first eight minutes of action. Local product and freshman Brinae Alexander was a bright spot for the Commodores early on, putting up four points and three offensive rebounds. The score was 28-11 in favor of the Lions after one quarter.
“I just saw us being really passive,” White said. “They run their stuff really hard. Because of the way they spread the floor, they’re really difficult to guard. I thought we were passive. We talked about wanting to be aggressive on the defensive end and wanting to make sure we play their tendencies and we didn’t do a good job. We weren’t focused. We worked all week on getting on people’s right shoulder and not letting them drive right, and they drove right nearly every time. To me, that’s focus.”
Vanderbilt finally hit a three pointer a few minutes into the second quarter on a bucket by Kaleigh Clemons-Green, but the Commodores still could not contain the Lions on the glass. A few buckets by Newby and Jordyn Cambridge gave the Commodores some momentum midway through the half, and Fasoula finally got her first points as a Commodore. The Boston College transfer went to work on the glass despite her pair of fouls
The home team got within eight points before Fasoula took another break with two minutes remaining in the second quarter. Newby became a force on the blocks in her absence, and Cambridge hit a clutch three-pointer to cut the lead to 39-34 in favor of UNA at halftime.
Newby started the second half with a bang, earning a three-point play in the paint in the opening minute to cut the deficit to two. Minutes later, two consecutive Newby layups put Vanderbilt in front for the first time all game.
“Autumn has been our most improved player on the floor, off the floor in terms of leadership,” White said. “She was a warrior,. She battled, and I think for Autumn to be able to work so hard on her shot, to step outside and be able to knock those shots down, is big. Because teams are doing to do just what North Alabama did tonight and they’re going to play off of her. If she can start knocking that down consistently, if she can start attacking consistently, then they’re going to have to guard her.”
The two teams went back and forth through most of the third quarter, as UNA’s Emma Walden found her stroke from beyond the arc to keep the Lions in the game. Newby continued to dominate as the quarter wound down, but Vanderbilt struggled to find a rhythm without her on the floor in the final two minutes of the quarter. UNA piled on the points at the end of the quarter to make it 60-53 in favor of the Lions after 30 minutes.
“They’re really fast, and they play hard,” White said of UNA’s elusive guards. “I just didn’t feel like our attention to detail and our scout was very good to start the ball game. I felt like we were much better in the second quarter and as the game went on, but by the time you get yourself down that much that year, you’re expending a lot of energy having to come back. I just think our attention to detail and focus was not good to start.”
Vanderbilt continued to turn to Newby for offensive production, as she had Vanderbilt’s only four points of the opening three minutes of the fourth quarter. Alexander drained one from three-point range to cut the deficit to three points midway through the quarter, but Newby continued to be the focal point of the offense. A pair of baskets by Chelsie Hall tied the game at 65-65 with less than four minutes to play in regulation.
Fasoula fouled out with less than three minutes to play, leaving it up to Newby to control the blocks in crunch time. After finding themselves down four with a minute left, the Commodores kept in it thanks to some persistence in the paint from Alexander. A missed Hall three-pointer in the final 30 seconds all but killed Vanderbilt’s chances at a comeback.
Now, the Commodores will have to respond quickly as they travel to Murfreesboro to take on Middle Tennessee State on Friday night.
“I think we showed that were capable,” White said. “There’s no doubt about it. I think the positive is that all of these things are fixable. The points of emphasis are that we don’t have the luxury of having lulls, we don’t have the luxury of not coming out ready to play at any point in the game. It’s fixable. We showed that we’re capable.”