Memorial Minutes: The Light is in Sight
Despite a slight regression this year against an ever-improving SEC, Shea Ralph undoubtedly has the Commodores in the best place the program has been in for a long time.
February 17, 2023
The last time Memorial Minutes took a deep dive into the state of the Women’s Basketball program, the only SEC opponent the Commodores had managed to beat was Texas A&M — the only team with a worse record than them at the time. While it’s fair to say that these results are less than inspiring, Vanderbilt’s record does not tell the full story of the 2022-23 season.
Though I’m a big subscriber to the “no excuses” mentality when it comes to breaking down a team’s performance, I also believe in context.
It was always going to be a challenge for Shea Ralph to replicate her success at UConn. Vanderbilt has spent a long time in the bottom tier of the SEC, one of the best conferences in the nation. While there were many preseason indicators that this season might don the title of “lost,” I would argue that this campaign has been anything but.
Win or loss, one truth has become undeniable to anyone following the program: Ralph is building a culture of cohesiveness and success within the walls of Memorial Gymnasium. While the path to rebuilding this program has not been easy, and is far from finished, the light is in sight.
Like I said, Vanderbilt’s first SEC win came in the form of a victory over the lowly Texas A&M Aggies, who were 6-12 at the time. A win is a win, but, that one felt like the singular game on the SEC schedule that the Commodores should be able to win based on their performance this season.
Despite the win, things weren’t expected to go much better for the Commodores. After all,they were still one of only three teams in the SEC with a losing record. Not to mention that the top 11 teams in the SEC have a combined record of 200-77 this season. That’s some pretty fierce competition.
With an offensive-juggernaut Arkansas squad (18-7) coming to town — a team who Vanderbilt played as close as virtually possible in Bud Walton Arena earlier in the season — the Commodores laid down the most tangible building block they have all season.
Vanderbilt proved that its last game against the Razorbacks in January was no fluke, beating them by a score of 78-70 in the rematch in Nashville. The trio of Marnelle Garraud, Ciaja Harbison and Sacha Washington led the way, accounting for a combined 65% of Vanderbilt’s scoring output. As a team, the Commodores shot a strong 48.2% from the field – much higher than low shooting splits they’ve struggled with for much of conference play.
The extremely close Jan. 16 rumble against Arkansas could have been deemed a moral victory, but the most important step in becoming a perennial winner is supplanting those “moral victories” with cold, hard wins. Vanderbilt getting their revenge against a good Razorback squad in Memorial hints to me that the days of celebrating moral victories are numbered for Ralph’s program.
Over the last three games, Vanderbilt suffered two blowout losses to Tennessee and Alabama, two of the top five teams in the SEC.
Vanderbilt has struggled mightily on the road this season: a sign of a team still developing confidence and poise in hostile environments. Secondly, there’s still a talent gap between Vanderbilt and the top of the SEC — that’s no secret. At this point in the program’s development, it’s important to focus on the right things.
Even in the Commodores’ 18 point loss to Alabama, some of the team’s previous keys to victory were resonant: Vanderbilt shot 44.2% from the field and Washington recorded an impressive double-double (24 points, 11 rebounds).
The first two
It’s hard to believe, but Ralph’s second year at the helm of this program almost over. Vanderbilt finished the 2021-22 season with an overall record of 16-19 (4-12 SEC). Despite ups and downs, there were undeniable bright spots from that season: losing by just two against ranked Arizona early in the season, a 65-57 victory over ranked Kentucky on Jan. 27, a win over Texas A&M in the SEC Tournament and two decisive NIT victories before coming just two points short of pulling off an upset against Middle Tennessee.
While this season hasn’t consisted of as many encouraging moments, I will continue to assert that the team’s progression remains linear in year two of the Ralph era.
“We’re going to go through stretches where we make runs. We’re going to go through stretches where they make runs. We can’t let that adversity shatter our core values in terms of who we’re supposed to be from start to finish,” Ralph remarked after the Arkansas victory.
Do yourself a favor and listen to Ralph talk about this team – she will have you ready to run through a wall with her in minutes.
These Commodores are headed somewhere.
Speaking of heading somewhere, Ryanne Allen was named SEC Freshman of the Week on Feb. 14 for the second time this season. Allen put up 12 points and recorded 6 rebounds against Arkansas. She also hit two threes against Tennessee, meaning that she has connected on multiple shots from downtown in four of her last five games. It’s important to remember that there is some impressive young talent on this team — Allen, Washington, Iyana Moore (when she returns from injury), Jada Brown and Bella LaChance are all underclassmen and can serve as a strong nucleus for this team going forward.
The next five
I’m not going to pretend that I know the five-year plan for this squad. I don’t even know if Ralph quite knows. What I do know, though, is that Vanderbilt will have two more solid chances to prove that they are moving in the right direction.
They will play both the team directly behind them in the SEC standings — Kentucky (10-14) – and the team directly in front — Auburn (13-11). These are both very winnable games for Ralph and Co. Victory is feasible if the Commodores can stay poised and get significant contributions from their veteran leaders and emerging nucleus of youth. Most importantly, if they can avoid shooting themselves out of these games early, Vanderbilt can conclude this season with hope for the future at an all-time high.
Unfortunately, the game sandwiched in between these two matchups is against No. 5 LSU: a team undefeated thus far this season, save for their loss to the superhuman No. 1 South Carolina. I have to admit, moral victories may have to be what Vanderbilt is looking to take away from that Feb. 23 bout at Memorial.
This final three-game stretch is critical for the Commodores to prove that this house of a program they are building has a strong foundation. If Vanderbilt can continue to get contributions from both their youth and veterans, slowly become more poised in adverse situations and shoot up to their capabilities, they can head into the offseason giddy about what’s next.
Vanderbilt’s final chapter of the season will open on Feb. 19 when they host Kentucky at 3 p.m. CST.