Sticky defense drops Commodores

Published: Monday, January 12, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 11, 2004 at 11:54 p.m.

During a timeout with 10 seconds remaining Sunday, Vanessa Hayden sat on the scorer's table in the O'Connell Center peeling gum off the bottom of her sneaker.

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Florida's Tishona Gregory blocks Vanderbilt's Katie Antony's shot in the Gators' win on Sunday.

LEE FERINDEN/Special to the Sun

"Someone put gum on the floor," Hayden said as she tried to scrape the gum off her shoe.

Funny thing is, Hayden and the Gators had spent the previous two hours sticking just as tightly to the Vanderbilt Commodores with a harassing, disruptive defense.

The Gators forced 24 turnovers and outlasted short-handed Vanderbilt 67-61 Sunday in Florida's Southeastern Conference home opener in the O'Connell Center.

The win erased the sour taste of Thursday's 79-72 loss at Ole Miss and allowed Florida (11-4, 1-1 SEC) to equal last year's conference win total.

"We didn't want to start off this year like we did last year when we lost the first 13 SEC games, then won the last one," Hayden said. "To win early helps our motivation and keeps us running."

Vanderbilt (13-2, 1-1) was playing without two starters, including injured senior Jenni Benningfield, the team's leading scorer.

Florida got 22 points, 11 rebounds and seven blocks from Hayden and 17 points from junior Tashia Morehead.

"This team did a great job of bouncing back from a loss at Ole Miss," coach Carolyn Peck said. "We returned home and did a tremendous job."

The season-high crowd of 3,303, enticed by a free ticket giveaway, watched the Gators' defense refuse to give away any baskets on the floor.

Not only did Florida force two dozen turnovers, the Gators also had 18 steals and nine blocked shots. The Commodores used a pair of freshmen point guards in place of injured starter Dee Davis.

"We're very, very young, and playing on the road with a lot of freshmen is tough," Vanderbilt coach Melanie Balcomb said. "But they pressured us and forced us into a lot of turnovers."

The catalyst for the Gators was starting point guard Tishona Gregory, who had seven steals.

"I tried to pressure the ball and get my hand in the passing lanes," Gregory said. "I tried to be as disruptive as I could."

Peck said her players, who were outrebounded 40-29, were ready to play intense defense from the moment they walked into the building.

"I could see it in our players' eyes in the locker room," Peck said. "We were ready to play defense."

Vanderbilt was led by Abi Ramsey's 20 points. Ramsey was 6-for-10 from behind the 3-point line, hitting three from beyond the arc in the final 1:35.

Florida, though, held on by hitting its free throws down the stretch and protecting a lead that grew to as many as 10 with 34.4 seconds remaining.

Up next for Florida is a pair of road games at No. 17 LSU on Thursday and No. 12 Georgia on Sunday.

You can reach Brandon Zimmerman by calling 374-5051 or at zimmerb@gvillesun.com

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