NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Playing back on their home court, Vanderbilt coach Melanie Balcomb made sure her shorthanded Commodores didn’t blow yet another lead.
Tiffany Clarke scored 14 points and Vanderbilt handed No. 6 Georgia its first loss of the season, a 66-44 victory Thursday night even with junior point guard Jence Rhoads sidelined with a broken hand.
Vanderbilt (13-4, 2-2 Southeastern Conference) snapped a two-game road skid in SEC games to avoid its worst start to league play since 1991-92. The Commodores, who visit No. 4 Tennessee on Sunday, beat the Lady Bulldogs for the sixth time in seven meetings.
The Commodores had blown leads the past two games, and Balcomb kept calling timeouts as they nursed a lead against Georgia.
“I’ve never had a team I had to do that, but I’ve learned the past two games. I called timeouts when we were up for them not to relax on defense and to stay focused on what our game plan was and to execute that with the effort. We had a tendency to relax when we had leads,” Balcomb said.
Not this time, even though this was the Commodores’ first game since Rhoads broke her hand Jan. 10 in a loss at Kentucky, forcing Balcomb to move Merideth Marsh to the point with freshmen Gabby Smith and Elan Brown playing more. Rhoads had started 37 straight games and was second in the SEC in assists.
“I’m sure we shocked a lot of people,” Vandy senior Jessica Mooney said after holding Ashley Houts to four points. “We weren’t surprised. We’ve had a lot of adversity this year with a lot of players going down. We stepped it up. We wanted that game partly for Jence to let her know all the weight’s not on her shoulders.”
Georgia (16-1, 3-1) came in with the fourth-best winning streak in school history. Senior Angel Robinson picked up her third foul early in the second half and finished with just nine points. Jasmine James led Georgia with 10 points.
Coach Andy Landers wasn’t happy.
“Turned it over, didn’t rebound it very well and then just made some fundamental mistakes defensively. But then you’re not going to win many games missing the open shots that we missed early in this game and not getting it inside and trying to go to work,” Landers said.
The Lady Bulldogs came in with the nation’s fourth-best defense, holding opponents to 50.1 points and a mere 32.7 shooting percentage. They gave up a season-high in both to Vanderbilt, which just fell out of the Top 25 on Monday after double-digit losses at Mississippi State and Kentucky.
The Commodores shot 46.3 percent and outrebounded Georgia 39-24, helping them get 15 second-chance points.
“If you don’t bring it, and when I say bring it I mean the whole package, if you’re not going to guard people, rebound, make hustle plays in this league on the road, you’re not going to win,” Landers said.
Marsh and Smith each scored 12 points for Vanderbilt, Brown added 11 and Mooney had 10.
Georgia led only once on James’ 3-pointer less than two minutes in. Mooney drove to the basket for a layup, and Clarke hit two free throws that started a 9-2 spurt for the Commodores.
The Commodores led 31-27 at halftime, a lead that could have been bigger if not for two shot clock violations inside the final 2 minutes. Hannah Tuomi picked up her third foul and sent Houts to the line for two free throws in a play officials reviewed courtside even as the Commodores tried to head into the locker room. Houts hit the first but missed the second.
Mooney got a steal to open the second half, and Clarke scored. Smith hit a jumper and scored again. Clarke hit four straight free throws, then Lauren Lueders hit a 3 that pushed Vanderbilt’s lead to 44-33 with 16:33 to go.
Porsha Phillips scored to pull Georgia to 46-40 with 10:53 remaining. Then Brown hit a jumper that started a 16-0 run as the Commodores put the game away. They led 62-40 by the time Jasmine James ended Georgia’s drought with two free throws with 4:44 to go.
Georgia hit only one field goal in that stretch with just over a minute left.