March 25, 2008
More Coverage:  Vanderbilt 64,  West Virginia 46
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Before tip off of each Vanderbilt women's basketball game, the team's five starters huddle up and remind each other to come out aggressive.
"That's certainly one of our goals as the starting five," said freshman point guard Jence Rhoads. "We come together at the beginning and tell each other `let's make them call a timeout in the first four minutes and jump on them right then.' We feel those first four minutes are the most important parts of the game of both halves. "
So far in the NCAA women's tournament, it's worked.
"We come into every game knowing that we're going to be the aggressor - on defense especially," said junior forward Christina Wirth. "When you have five people out there doing the same thing and working as hard as everybody else out there, then good things happen. We're able to get leads and that sends a message to the other team early that we're going to keep it up for 40 minutes."
The No. 4 seed Commodores have used the first four minutes of each half as an opportunity to make a statement. After jumping out to an 11-3 lead just before the under 16:00-minute timeout against No. 13 seed Montana, Vanderbilt used a similar opening blitz to jump out to an 11-2 lead against No. 5 seed West Virginia.
"I think we talk a lot about the mental part of the game and we have smart kids and kids that have really bought on to what we want," said Head Coach Melanie Balcomb. "Once you get them to buy on, then what I value carries over to what they value. And I value the first four minutes of every game and the first four minutes of every half.
"It really can take a lot of wind out of another team. I think that's the most important time, other than the end of the game in a close game. We just want to send the message that we're going to be the aggressor and that we're going to attack, whether it's on offense or defense. They've just really bought on to my philosophy and have done a really good job of accomplishing that."
Against Montana, that first run alone proved to be enough as Vanderbilt never relinquished its lead en route to a 28-point victory. Monday night against West Virginia, the Commodores needed a few more runs to pull out its victory.
With four minutes left in the first half and 14 turnovers later, Vanderbilt had seen its lead erode and found itself trailing by five. In the final four minutes of the half, the Commodores only turned the ball over once and pulled themselves within two, heading into the locker room down 29-27.
During the intermission, Balcomb talked to her team about slowing down in an attempt to cut down their turnovers.
"We just talked about it and really just made it a focus," Wirth said. "We started going really fast and forcing things. There's no reason to do that. We just needed to slow down and execute and just read the defense."
When the team's starters once again took the floor to begin the second half, they brought their same mentality. With a 10-6 run over the next four minutes Vanderbilt regained the lead at 37-35 and never looked back as the Commodores ran away to a 64-46 victory and coveted spot in the Sweet Sixteen.
"One of our goals and our keys to every single game is to run and have fun," said junior guard Jennifer Risper. "Even when games get tough like that, we're still trying to get excited for each other. We want to have fun when we're playing. We're a close group of girls, so it is fun."
Combining the runs from the first and last four minutes of each half in Vanderbilt's two tourney games so far, the Commodores have dominated their opponents, outscoring them 66-33. That's 47 percent of the Commodores two-game point total in only 25 percent of game time.
Also over that span, they have committed only four turnovers, or one every five minutes, while forcing eight from the opposition.
The Commodores will be watching No. 1 seed Maryland take on No. 8 seed Nebraska Tuesday night, so they will know who their opponent is when they travel to Spokane, Wash., for the Sweet Sixteen next weekend.
"I'm so excited, this is a dream come true," Rhoads said. "I've never been to Washington, so I think that it will be fun to go there."