Memorial Minutes: Gearing up for SEC Competition
To compete in conference play, the Commodores will need to rely heavily on graduate transfer students Marnelle Garraud and Ciaja Harbison.
December 29, 2022
Following a promising campaign in Shea Ralph’s first season as head coach for Vanderbilt, the Commodores got out to a blazing start to the 2022-23 season, winning their first five games of the season. This 5-0 start was good enough to be Vanderbilt’s best start since the 2014-15 season. Vanderbilt’s ideal season was squandered though, as the Commodores lost five of their next six games. Sitting at 6-5 with just three nonconference games remaining in the season, the Commodores needed to find ways to get back in winning form. Vanderbilt now sits at 9-5, thanks to a three-game win streak including victories over Louisiana Tech, Lipscomb and Alabama A&M over their past three games.
Vanderbilt’s preseason starting roster looks vastly different than it does now, as three of the Commodores’ projected 2022-23 starters (Iyana Moore, Kaylon Smith and Jordyn Cambridge) suffered season-ending injuries before Vanderbilt’s first game. Ralph’s coaching staff never let that affect her belief that every individual donning Black and Gold can make a legitimate contribution. Of Vanderbilt’s 9 rostered players, every player averages a minimum of 12.5 minutes per game.
The “next man up” mantra has been key in the Vanderbilt locker room this season, especially for the class of 2026. Vanderbilt’s trio of freshmen has been integral to the team’s success this season.
Amauri Williams, who has missed three games to injury, averages 6.4 points per game and is an ideal player to help out Vanderbilt’s frontcourt when Sacha Washington needs a breather. Ryanne Allen averages 7.2 points per game and holds a 35.2 percentage from beyond the arc, making her a prime weapon from the 3-point line. Allen already has gained national attention this season: she was named SEC Freshman of the Week on Dec. 13, thanks to a commendable performance over LA Tech in which she scored 11 of Vanderbilt’s 15 overtime points and knocked in a career-high four 3-pointers.
Vanderbilt’s final freshman is Jada Brown, who has started 13 of Vanderbilt’s 14 games. The Arkansas native averages 24.7 minutes per game, which is the third most for the Commodores. The two players with more minutes on the court than Brown are Marnelle Garraud and Ciaja Harbison.
Jada for a smooth 3!!#AnchorDown pic.twitter.com/9BGmMJOjWq
— Vanderbilt WBB (@VandyWBB) December 21, 2022
The “Kardiac Kids” is a term that refers to the National Football League’s Cleveland Browns’ 1980-81 team, which won several games in the final seconds in nail-biting fashion. This December, the Commodores have fully embodied this term. After losing to UT Martin, 66-54, the Commodores pulled off a thrilling 75-70 overtime victory over LA Tech. Graduate senior Marnelle Garraud helped the Commodores edge past the Bulldogs, thanks to a career-high 31 points. Of Garraud’s 31 points, 21 of those points came from beyond the arc. As of Dec. 28, Garraud is tied in the SEC for the most number of 3-pointers made (35).
“I think we’ve been talking a lot about having that extra effort and that extra oomph in our play and not letting people push us over. LA Tech was a really good team. It showed us that we can take our game to the next level whenever we want to,” Garraud told the Hustler. “In that game, from start to finish, we were competing hard, we were communicating well, we were putting the extra mile in and that is what our coaches have been trying to have us do.”
Ten days after Vanderbilt’s win over LA Tech, the Commodores returned to the hardwood and outlasted Nashville foe Lipscomb, 72-71, in another overtime victory. This game was a back-and-forth affair until the clock hit double zeroes. To seal this victory, Vanderbilt had another player post 31 points: Ciaja Harbison. With nine seconds remaining in overtime, as Vanderbilt trailed Lipscomb 70-71, Harbison came up clutch and made two free throws after being fouled by Blythe Pearson. Harbison’s confidence and composure proved to be the difference maker in the game.
Harbison showed Vanderbilt fans that her performance against Lipscomb was not a fluke when she scored 18 points and a career-high 8 assists in Vanderbilt’s 30-point victory over Alabama A&M. The Kentucky native ranks second in the SEC with 18.8 points per game and has scored 20 or more points five times this season. Harbison also has at least five assists in nine games this season.
Gearing up for Conference Play
With all of Vanderbilt’s nonconference games elapsed, the Commodores are less than one day away from the start of conference play. The Commodores—who rank 12th of 14 teams in the Southeastern Conference in win-loss record thus far—will embark on an arduous schedule filled with powerhouse teams for the remainder of the season.
Last season, the Commodores won only 5 of their 18 SEC games. Most, if not all, of the SEC opponents that will play the Commodores have a natural advantage: height. The Commodores have just three players in the frontcourt that are 6 feet tall or higher (Sacha Washington, Amauri Williams and Yaubryon Chambers), while the league’s best, like South Carolina, have seven players in their frontcourt that are 6 feet tall or higher. For Vanderbilt to improve on their SEC record from last year and make a formidable push at an NCAA Tournament berth, they will need to be tenacious and gritty.
“We’re small, so I think we need to get really gritty and really aggressive on the boards. That’s gonna be a major emphasis. I think every team is probably going to think that they’re going to beat us on the boards. I think, for us, getting our offense more chances and getting other teams one-and-done on defense is going to be a really big emphasis for us,” Garraud said. “What they [the media] projected us to do in the SEC is not what’s actually going to happen.”
Ralph’s group is riding into this stretch looking to extend their three-game win streak. To do that, Vanderbilt will need Sacha Washington to continue to be a force in the paint. The sophomore has notched 102 rebounds through 14 games this season, which is good for just over 7 rebounds per game. In Vanderbilt’s overtime thriller against Lipscomb, Washington racked up a season-high 12 rebounds. Washington built on her momentum in Vanderbilt’s next game, as the sophomore scored a career-high 23 points over Alabama A&M. Washington went 8-11 from the field and 7-9 from the charity swipe that night. Vanderbilt may many other student-athletes with the force and size of Washington, but this team is ready to prove to the nation that Ralph’s Commodores have an unmatched will to win.
A win against Mississippi State would be a great way to conclude the 2022 calendar year and open 2023 on a high note. Vanderbilt’s SEC slate will begin with a clash with Mississippi State on Dec. 29 at Memorial Gymnasium at 5 p.m. CST. The 11-2 Bulldogs average 78.8 points per game and 44.2 rebounds per game, while the Commodores average 69.9 points per game and 35 rebounds per game.