NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Taber Spani remembered only too well losing in Memorial Gym last season, and the senior made sure the Tennessee Lady Vols avoided a repeat performance.
Spani scored a career-high 24 points and Meighan Simmons added 23 as No. 9 Tennessee beat Vanderbilt 83-75 Thursday night for the Lady Vols' ninth straight victory.
"Well, I mean honestly you just want to come in and play your best against a great SEC team," Spani said. "Obviously, this is a great rivalry game. But we also have a lot of respect for Vanderbilt and what they're capable of doing and it's always a great environment."
Simmons said the Lady Vols wanted to send a message as well in this rivalry between SEC schools separated by 190 miles.
"We had to remind ourselves there's only one school in the state of Tennessee, and that's the University of Tennessee," Simmons said. "We wanted to prove that point tonight."
With No. 5 Kentucky losing to No. 18 South Carolina earlier in the night, Tennessee (16-3, 7-0) is the Southeastern Conference's last undefeated team in league play. Simmons said that's exactly where the Lady Vols expected to be. Coach Holly Warlick cautioned it's still very early this season.
"But yeah, it's great to be undefeated and be on top of the SEC," Warlick said. "But ... we're not satisfied absolutely."
The Lady Vols have won 11 straight SEC games dating back to last season and a loss here at Memorial Gym. They got a small measure of payback by beating Vanderbilt for the 25th time in 27 games in this series.
Bashaara Graves also had 16 points for Tennessee.
Vanderbilt (13-6, 3-3) lost for the first time at home this season and has lost three of four overall. The Commodores played without 6-foot-4 sophomore Clair Watkins, who tore her left anterior cruciate ligament in practice Wednesday. They still pulled down 21 offensive rebounds despite being outrebounded 46-43.
Christina Foggie led Vandy with 22 points before fouling out in the final minute, Tiffany Clarke had 19 and Kady Schrann 14.
The Commodores managed to tie the score twice, the second time at 41 after scoring the first 12 points of the second half. The Lady Vols answered with an 11-2 spurt capped by a drive by Simmons with 12:45 to go, and Vanderbilt couldn't get closer than five the rest of the way. Tennessee hit 14 of 15 at the line in the final 3:49 to seal the victory.
Vanderbilt coach Melanie Balcomb wasn't happy with how her Commodores trailed 41-29 at halftime and shot only 25.6 percent from the floor (10 of 39).
The Commodores came in as the SEC's second-best team beyond the arc, shooting 36.4 percent from 3-point range. They shot 21.7 percent (5 of 23) and missed three 3s in the final minutes with a chance to make it a one-score game. But Balcomb said the game plan called for the Commodores to work the ball into the paint and defend Simmons and Spani.
"I'm just baffled by the first half," Balcomb said. "I liked the fight in the second half, but obviously the first half I didn't. We just didn't execute our game plan. Our kids are smarter than that. They have to work harder at the things we're asking them to do."
Tennessee had coach emeritus Pat Summitt sitting on the front row behind their bench right beside Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, just her second road trip this season. She watched the Lady Vols do what they usually do in Nashville. The Lady Vols now are 61-8 all-time against Vanderbilt in this in-state rivalry and 24-6 in Nashville.
Spani said having Summitt at the game meant the world.
"We were so excited when we found out she was coming, I was really trying to look for her, and I finally found her before the game," Spani said. "She brings inspiration to our team every time we see her."
The Lady Vols grabbed control from the start on a jumper by Isabelle Harrison, whose father Dennis played football for Vanderbilt in the 1970s. Vanderbilt managed to tie it up at 4 before Simmons hit a 3-pointer to put Tennessee ahead to stay. Simmons followed with another 3 and celebrated as she ran backward down the court signaling three with each hand.
Spani hit her first two 3s as well as the Lady Vols quickly pushed the lead to double digits. Even when something went wrong for the Lady Vols when Simmons missed a layup off the fast-break after moving the ball behind her back, Kamiko Williams was there to rebound the miss and put it back up for a bucket.
Tennessee led by as much as 15 with 1:50 left on Spani's third 3 of the half, and the Lady Vols led 41-29 at halftime only to watch that lead evaporate in the opening minutes of the second half.