NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Middle Tennessee State had Vanderbilt right where it wanted it as the opening half came to a close in Sunday's first-round battle for basketball bragging rights over the parts of the Volunteer State not already awash in orange.
Sure, the Commodores were playing on their home court, at Memorial Gym, an advantage made all the more distinct by near-record high temperatures that settled over the area in recent days and left a court without air conditioning feeling like a sauna. And yes, the Blue Raiders trailed by seven points at the game's midpoint and couldn't buy a shot.
Commodores center Stephanie Holzer was out of the game with three fouls, one of three players on her team in such a predicament before halftime. Holzer had been on the bench since picking up her second and third fouls in the span of 38 seconds with more than four minutes remaining in the first half and appeared a good candidate to foul out for the sixth time this season. Without that 6-foot-4 frame causing matchup problems on both ends, the undersized Blue Raiders felt like the tide was turning.
It didn't work out that way. Middle Tennessee State could not capitalize on a vulnerable Vanderbilt, as the first meeting between neighbors showed an SEC side tough enough to win ugly, 60-46. And a team that may not need to if Holzer can stay on the court.
Middle Tennessee State erased that halftime deficit and rallied to tie the score at 28 early in the second half, but with Holzer back in the lineup and refusing to take the bait as foes repeatedly went at her in hopes of drawing that fourth foul, Vanderbilt went on a 20-5 run and never looked back.
Holzer didn't win this game for Vanderbilt; Jasmine Lister, Elan Brown and a defense almost as stifling as the temperature did. Brown, who entered with four 3-pointers in her past 15 games, hit three from behind the arc and finished with 12 points, more than double her season average. With most of her team's inside game in foul trouble and SEC leading scorer Christina Foggie suffering through a rare ineffective shooting performance, Lister played all 40 minutes and finished with a game-high 19 points.
Holzer stole the spotlight when she was in the game, helping anchor a second-half run with six points and four rebounds during the deciding stretch and finishing with nine points, 10 rebounds, three blocks and three steals.
"She's just a big kid," Middle Tennessee State coach Rick Insell said. "She's got broad shoulders, and she's 6-4 and she's got great touch. And we knew if she got planted in the lane, she was going to be a difference-maker. If you look at [Ebony Rowe and Icelyn Elie], they were there battling with her, and she kept the ball high and was able to finish. Those were some good putbacks she got right there when she came back in [in the second half]."
Asked after the game to vocalize the reaction in her mind when she heard that whistle blow for her third foul, Holzer passed on words and went right for a guttural expression of frustration. It's not an unfamiliar feeling for her. Holzer entered the game averaging 11.1 points and 7.3 rebounds per game this season, her second after redshirting because of injury as a true freshman; but she also entered with those six disqualifications and 100 fouls in 31 games. Project her numbers over 40 minutes and she averages 19.8 points, 13.1 rebounds and 2.5 blocks. She also averages 5.8 fouls, which, until college basketball adopts NBA rules, is a bit of a problem.
"I think my biggest thing, and where I got caught up in a lot of fouls, is I'm so passionate about basketball," Holzer said. "That when I get the ball taken from me, my mindset is, 'Get the ball back, get the ball back, get the ball back.' And that's where I started picking up silly fouls."
Assistant coach Vicky Picott, who has been with Melanie Balcomb throughout the coach's tenure in Nashville and works with the posts, talked a day earlier about the growth in Holzer's game coming down to the player's maturity catching up with her intensity. Vanderbilt's lone senior, Jordan Coleman, has watched that same process unfold for a teammate who dealt with frustration sitting out that first season and struggled to find her footing on the court.
"Above all, the biggest aspect of her game that has grown is her mentality," Coleman said after Sunday's win. "I think before, like her freshman year, she was always talented, always a gifted player, but it was all up here [in her head]. She didn't know, really, how to communicate with her teammates and kind of channel all the energy she wanted to bring to the court onto her teammates, the other four people on the court, and that was kind of difficult. But now, she's become a really good vocal leader. She's really communicative defensively and offensively."
Holzer is a mobile, nimble post player who can step out and hit a jumper from the top of the key or feed a cutting teammate from the high post. Come to think of it, she's the kind of player a team would want if it had to match up against someone like, say, Duke's Elizabeth Williams, a player who can make Williams work on both ends. Holzer seems to gain confidence with each minute on the court, which is one more reason she needs to get as many of them as she can.
"A lot of her versatility has really been exposed this year," Coleman said. "I think her first year, she was in the post and doing post moves, but now she can step out and hit the jump shot, and I think a lot of that has to do with her health because she came off a bad injury her freshman year. Now she can do a lot more things; she's a lot more mobile.
"I think she was fixed her [redshirt] freshman year physically, but mentally, I don't know if she believed it."
Beating Duke on Tuesday night will take more than the familiarity of the home court and some soupy air. It will take Lister, the fearless 5-foot-4 guard with a constant motor, reprising her effort, and Foggie regaining the touch that allows her to shoot 40 percent from the 3-point line.
But Vanderbilt is a different team with Holzer on the court.
"The success she's having now has a lot to do with her just saying, 'I want more, I want better.' She's grown up, so it's been fun," Picott said the day before Sunday's game. "She knows when she is on the floor, we are a much better team, a much better team."
To reach the Sweet 16, it will need to be at its best.