Ciaja Harbison sinks a mid-range jumper in Vanderbilts victory over Kentucky on Feb. 19, 2023.
Ciaja Harbison sinks a mid-range jumper in Vanderbilt’s victory over Kentucky, as photographed on Feb. 19, 2023. (Hustler Multimedia/Barrie Barto).
Barrie Barto

Memorial Minutes: Grade incomplete

Vanderbilt Women’s Basketball started this season behind the eight ball, but that never stopped them from fighting to the very end.

With 7 minutes and 55 seconds left in what turned out to be its final game of the season, Vanderbilt trailed Texas A&M by 17 points. It would have been easy for Shea Ralph’s Commodores, who were playing for nothing but pride at that point, to lay down and put a tough season to bed.

But they didn’t. 

Like it has all season, Vanderbilt fought with its back against the wall, trimming the Aggies lead to just three points at 69-66 with two minutes and 25 seconds to go. Behind a slew of triples from Ryanne Allen and Marnelle Gaurrad, the Commodores crawled their way back in. Ralph’s group forced five turnovers in the frenetic final minutes, embodying the warrior spirit that the team possessed all season. In the end, Vanderbilt fell just short to Texas A&M, 77-70. 

“I am really proud of my team,” Ralph said afterwards. “There has been a ton of adversity thrown at us this year. I’ve almost told them not to talk about it because they were things we couldn’t control, namely injuries and stuff off the court that no one else knows but us.” 

Down three starters (Iyana Moore, Kaylon Smith, Jordyn Cambridge) before the first game of the season even tipped-off, Vanderbilt gave Ralph and fans plenty to be proud of. Further, Ralph’s second squad took on the demeanor of their coach from the very jump: fiery, determined and unwilling to back down. In just year two of Ralph’s tenure, the team’s persistence has represented a continuation of the idea that Ralph can be an elite program builder within the SEC. 

“When you’re in the position we’re in, it would have been very easy to be a tough locker room to be tough to walk into everyday,” Ralph added. “But it never was. It was the best part of my day, everyday.” 

Ralph would be the first to tell you though that finishing the season 12-19 and bowing out in the opening round of the SEC Tournament is by no means a successful season on West End for Vanderbilt Women’s Basketball. But for the second-year head coach, a successful and stepping stone season can mean two different things. In 2022-23, Vanderbilt — given the context of off-court injuries and dismissals (Amauri Williams was removed from the program mid-season) — receives not a pass or fail, but a grade incomplete. 

Wreck-It Ralph 

One of my favorite animated movies growing up was the 2012 classic ‘Wreck-It Ralph’. In it, video game character Ralph balances his gentle spirit with his character’s innate disposition to smash everything in his way. 

Like the movie’s titular character, Shea Ralph is going to be smashing everything in her way — and sooner rather than later.

Coach Shea Ralph calls a play, as photographed on Feb. 5. 2023.
Coach Shea Ralph calls a play, as photographed on Feb. 5. 2023. (Hustler Multimedia/Michael Tung) (Michael Tung)

In a season that looked lost before we had even reached Halloween, Ralph furthered her reputation as an absolute culture builder in the college basketball world — and diamond in the rough on West End. Even with rampant injury and in-season turbulence, Ralph engineered three conference wins and led a team that was highly competitive night in, night out in the SEC. 

While three conference wins is meager in the context of Vanderbilt’s proud Women’s Basketball history, Ralph knows the Commodores’ days as a conference bottom feeder are numbered. 

“Are we champions this year?” Ralph asked after the season’s end. “No, we’re not going to win a championship. We’re No. 12 [in the SEC], we’re not in the top half. But not for long.” 

It’s that determination and passion, coupled with the in-game prowess and recruiting savvy Ralph has shown in just two years, that should have Vanderbilt fans ecstatic about the coach at the end of the baseline at Memorial Gymnasium. 

Sometimes the best leaders are forged through fire. Ralph certainly learned that during this season’s uphill climb. But the second-year head coach, who will likely never allow her program to be in this position again, should be better for it in the long run.

On Ciaja 

I’ve seen plenty of talented individuals don the Black and Gold for Vanderbilt Women’s Basketball over my four years on campus, but I’ve never seen a player have a season quite like St. Louis transfer Ciaja Harbison did in 2022-23. 

The Commodores needed every bit of this fifth-year senior’s  brilliance to maintain respectability in the SEC, and she was impeccable all season long. Harbison’s stat line of 19.8 points (2nd in the SEC), 4.5 assists (2nd in the SEC), 3 rebounds and 2.4 steals (1st in the SEC) per game was a beaming bright spot for Vanderbilt and a major scare in the eyes of opponents. 

Ciaja Harbison during a game against LSU, as photographed on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2023.
Ciaja Harbison during a game against LSU, as photographed on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2023. (Hustler Multimedia/Nikita Rohila) (Nikita Rohila)

Harbison’s efforts earned her Second Team All-SEC honors, though you’d be hard pressed to find five (or even eight, as the SEC stupidly selects) players more deserving of a First Team bid. 

The greatest performance for Harbison in a season full of them was her 41-point outburst against Texas A&M on Jan. 28. Harbison’s 41 points tied Chantelle Anderson’s single-game program record and marked the only time an SEC player has topped the 40-point mark this season. 

“We know that she is one of, if not the best, players in the league, and tonight she proved it.” Ralph said of Harbison after the win. 

While Harbison’s magic was only in Memorial for one season, it was a joy to watch the graduate transfer do her thing in the Black and Gold. With Ralph’s plethora of WNBA connections, this probably won’t be the last time we see Harbison on the big screen.

The steps ahead 

Now two seasons into her tenure, Ralph and company know it’s time to start turning moral victories into actual ones. Along with Harbison, the program will say goodbye to graduate Marnelle Garraud, while Cambridge’s status of potentially gaining a medical redshirt is unknown. 

Seniors Yaubryon Chambers and Demi Washington will have to make offseason decisions on whether to utilize their extra year of COVID eligibility and return for a fifth-year, as well. 

That leaves five underclassmen Commodores scheduled to return for sure, though the transfer portal could change things of course. Bella LaChance is slated to be the lone senior next season. Among rising juniors, Moore will be back from an ACL tear, while Sacha Washington will look to improve upon an impressive first two years. Jada Brown and Allen — who hit 42 three-pointers as a freshman — round out the supposed returnees. 

Ralph will once again need to hit the transfer portal hard, something she was evidently highly successful at last offseason, to replace the losses of Harbison, Gaurrad and potentially others. The Commodores will also welcome five freshmen signees — Bailey Gilmore, Madison Greene, Aga Makurat, Aiyana Mitchell and Khamil Pierre — into the program over the summer. Pierre, a four star recruit ranked No. 63 by ESPN, headlines the group.

“We are so excited about the women who have chosen to call Vanderbilt home. My staff has worked tirelessly to find the right people in the Class of 2023, and I could not be more proud of the group we are bringing in,” Ralph said in November. “When I think about the kind of program we want to establish here, these five women meet or exceed all the criteria we have put in place to achieve that, and they are the kind of people and players who can help propel us forward.”

With a fresh infusion of talent into the program, the return of Moore and the continued development of key pieces like Washington, it’s clear that Ralph has the program on an upward trajectory. If we’re to take her word for it, we’ll be seeing much more soon. 

“You will be seeing a lot of Vanderbilt Women’s Basketball over the next several years.” 

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About the Contributors
Bryce Smith, Former Sports Editor
Bryce Smith ('23) is majoring in human and organizational development in Peabody College with a minor in business. Bryce previously wrote for SBNation before joining The Hustler. Hailing from Chicago, Bryce is a die-hard Bears and Cubs fan who is also hoping that the Bulls and Blackhawks may one day rekindle their dominance. He can be reached at [email protected].    
Barrie Barto, Senior Staff Photographer
Barrie Barto ('25) is majoring in medicine, health & society with minors in communication of science & technology and neuroscience in the College of Arts and Science. She previously served as Photography Director. Outside of The Hustler, you can find Barrie cheering on the St. Louis Blues or tracking down the best gluten-free food in Nashville. She can be reached at [email protected].
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Vincent
10 months ago

I’m super excited. These five in coming freshman should get right to work. I’m hoping Jordi can come back for one last season love her leadership. With Moore coming back there is some scoring . There are some good ladies in the portal. The 6’5 sophomore from Arizona would give size and possibly the Unc guard or the Boston College guard. I’m just ready to see Vandy back in the top of the sec. I think coach Ralph is a great fit.
Sincerely Loyal Fan since 1992