NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Melanie Balcomb wanted her Vanderbilt Commodores to push the ball inside offensively and focus on defending Taber Spani and Meighan Simmons of Tennessee.
They didn't follow the game plan well at all.
The Commodores outscored No. 9 Tennessee 38-32 in the paint and even grabbed 21 offensive rebounds, but they couldn't keep up with the Lady Vols' top scorers Thursday night in losing 83-75.
"Believe it or not, the game plan in the first half was the same as it was in the second half," Balcomb said. "We just didn't execute the game plan. Get the ball inside, get the ball to the rim. It all worked in the second half. The first half, we took too many outside shots, weren't aggressive and didn't attack enough."
That left Vanderbilt trailing 41-29 at halftime. The Commodores scored the first 12 points of the second half to tie up Tennessee at 41. But that was as close as they would get as the Lady Vols responded by scoring 11 of the next 13 points before hitting 14 of their final 15 free throws in the final 3:49 to seal the win.
"Just can't celebrate when we make a run," Vanderbilt junior guard Christina Foggie said.
Foggie led Vandy with 22 points before fouling out in the final minute, Tiffany Clarke had 19 and Kady Schrann 14.
Spani scored a career-high 24 points and Simmons added 23 as Tennessee (16-3, 7-0) won its ninth straight. The Lady Vols got a measure of payback for losing in Memorial Gym a year ago, their last SEC loss.
"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 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 the loss here last season. They now have beaten Vanderbilt 25 times in the last 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.
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.
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.
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."