Marsh, Rhoads go the distance
Vandy's guards each play all 45 minutes, combine for 41 points in OT win
CINCINNATI -- Merideth Marsh was fresh enough after playing every minute of sixth-seeded Vanderbilt's 83-76 overtime victory against No. 11 seed DePaul in the first round of the NCAA tournament to leave the court at a jog. After a quick stop by the radio table, the Commodores senior held her hand high in recognition of well-wishers above the tunnel at the Cintas Center.
And at least by her telling, the solitary piece of bubble gum that stayed with her for all 45 minutes against the Blue Demons was equally ready for a few more rounds.
"I literally could tell you that if you take the piece that I put in at the beginning of the game and take it at the end of the game, it still has just as much flavor," Marsh said after scoring a game-high 26 points. "I really don't think I chew it during the game, I just kind of sit [it] in my jaw and it keeps the juices going. I don't know, it's something weird."
The visual evidence contradicted her claims. At least in Sunday's game, Marsh appeared to chomp her way through the tensest moments of DePaul's comeback and Vanderbilt's subsequent decisive surge in overtime. And given the abundant supply of potential turning points, that piece of gum had to have all the flavor of dehydrated lettuce by the final buzzer.
This was not an easy day for the higher seed, nor a perfect performance by any stretch. But along with the sporadic bad or ugly, there were bursts of good and even great. Hannah Tuomi offered the latter in turning back the clock with a performance worthy of some of the program's best post players, finishing with 17 points (on 7-of-7 shooting from the floor), 12 rebounds and 6 assists. Lauren Lueders showed it in draining two key 3-pointers and drawing a charge on DePaul's Sam Quigley that put the Blue Demons' standout on the bench for the final 12 minutes of the first half. And Jessica Mooney offered her best with 10 points, 5 assists and a series of highlights after halftime.
"Our season has been up and down and up and down," Marsh said. "And I think that's good and bad. We've played through adversity and it's got us to the point where we are now. And March Madness is where we need to be playing our best basketball, and I think that that's what we're doing right now. We have a lot of people stepping up and accepting the roles that they're in and are supposed to be playing and then playing with confidence in those roles. And with that, we're going to win. We have a lot of heart; we know how to dig deep when we need it."
The basketball court doesn't unleash [Meredith] Marsh's inner whirling dervish; it just gives her a socially productive venue for venting it.
But if the Commodores persevered because the right people stepped up at the right moments, they also advanced to meet No. 3 Xavier on Tuesday because the right people never sat down.
Both Marsh and point guard Jence Rhoads played the entire 45 minutes. They were there for the lows, perfectly encapsulating the team's potentially disastrous slow start to the second half when Rhoads lofted a backcourt pass over Marsh's head as the latter looked upcourt and directed traffic ahead, oblivious to the ball sailing into press row. And they were there for the highs, like Marsh absorbing contact and finishing a three-point play to extend Vanderbilt's lead to five early in overtime, three of the nine points she scored in the extra period.
Mostly they were there because they didn't have any choice but to be there.
"They are so solid all the time, every game," Lueders said. "They don't even have to be scoring, but they're just solid. And I have the utmost confidence in both of them. We all do, and I know the coaches do. And I think it gives our team confidence because we all have confidence in them and they're going to be there every play."
At one point in the second half, the 5-foot-6 Marsh had four rebounds, more than any DePaul player to that point. She finished with five rebounds and 11 free throw attempts to go with myriad 3-pointers and pull-up jumpers off shot fakes from behind the arc, not to mention all the collisions, box outs and creative repositionings (like a car's bumper, the small of a bigger player's back is there to be used on rebounds) that went uncounted.
The basketball court doesn't unleash Marsh's inner whirling dervish; it just gives her a socially productive venue for venting it.
"She definitely can be [as intense off the court], but in a good way -- in a great way," Lueders said. "Mer's a unique individual. We all love her; we do. It's kind of just what you see on the floor. What you see is what you get. She says what's on her mind all the time, on the court, off the court. That's Mer. That's how we know her; that's why we love her
"She will put you in your place, but we need that for this team. We're all kind -- not saying that Mer's not nice because she is -- but we're all kind of just really nice to each other, and sometimes we need that person to say like, 'No, that's not OK.' She gives us that."
Her backcourt partner might be quieter, but Rhoads is cut from the same cloth. She suffered a broken bone in her nonshooting hand in the second half of a game against Kentucky earlier this season but didn't tell anyone at the time. She played -- you guessed it -- 40 minutes that night and missed just two games before returning to play -- yep -- 40 minutes in her first game back. A starter since her freshman season and a marvel of assist-to-turnover ratio for just as long, she has scored 421 points this season, easily topping the 351 points she scored in her first two seasons combined.
And while she didn't have a typical line distributing the ball Sunday, finishing with three assists and five turnovers, Rhoads followed Marsh and Tuomi on the scoreboard with 15 points.
"Jence has learned that she can score," Mooney said. "In years past, she hasn't been that scorer; she's always thought pass first. But she's finally learned that it's hard for any team to keep her in front of them. So she's become one of our main go-to players down the stretch because she can get to the basket whenever she feels like it. I think that's been really good for her. And she's become more of a vocal leader. She realized she needed to speak up and lead us being our point guard, and she's done a great job of doing that this season."
Playing consistently remains something Vanderbilt, like every team, holds out as a goal and a key to success this time of season. But until the Commodores perfect that, it doesn't hurt to count on Marsh and Rhoads consistently playing.
Like Marsh's gum, they aren't going anywhere. And in their cases, they really don't lose anything along the way.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
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