Memorial Minutes: Tournament contenders?

The Commodores are undefeated through four games. But will their run continue?
Iyana Moore attempts a layup, as photographed on Nov. 12, 2023. (Hustler Multimedia/Vince Lin)
Iyana Moore attempts a layup, as photographed on Nov. 12, 2023. (Hustler Multimedia/Vince Lin)
Vince Lin

“That’s what we want to do,” Vanderbilt Women’s Basketball head coach Shea Ralph said of playing in the NCAA Tournament. “That’s our goal this year. I’ve been pretty clear about that.”

When Vanderbilt hired Ralph in 2021, the goal was clear: to turn Vanderbilt Women’s Basketball into a perennial Tournament contender. Given her 13 years of experience on the UConn bench, that goal seemed ambitious, but still realistic.

Of course, there have been growing pains along the way; the Commodores were just 7-25 in SEC games across Ralph’s first two years. But the signs are there that Vanderbilt is back on track, and this could be the year that the Commodores return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2013-14. That season marked the end of a 26-year run in which Vanderbilt made the dance 25 times.

After four straight wins to open 2023-24, let’s look at what the Commodores have done ― and will need to continue to do ― to keep winning games.

Super Sacha

Junior Sacha Washington may be the most important player to what Vanderbilt is building right now on both sides of the ball. Washington leads the team with 17.5 points per game and 10.8 rebounds per game. She’s double-doubled in three out of the four games so far, and put up a 20-point game on Sunday against Fairfield.

In addition to her stat line, Washington’s paint presence makes the team strong on both sides of the ball. In a team mostly comprised of guards who can shoot from deep and drive into the paint, Washington is needed to set screens, post up and keep the offense balanced. On defense, she’s blocked seven shots while also serving as the sort of “failsafe” the Commodores need in case the offense breaks through the full-court press quickly.

Washington’s stellar play has led to playing 29.4 minutes per game this season after averaging 25.7 minutes in 2022-23. Ralph has even emphasized her reliance on Washington to play long stretches, even when not feeling 100% healthy.

“There were stretches last year where she really struggled,” Ralph said. “Even when she wanted to come out, I left her out there. And now you can see how much she’s grown from that. I think it’s made her a better player and a better leader.”

Even with a much improved and deeper roster, Washington is still the lynchpin of Vanderbilt’s starting rotation. Speaking of which…

A revamped roster

The sheer depth of quality players on Vanderbilt’s roster is probably the biggest difference between last year and this year. Vanderbilt infamously had just eight available players for most of 2022-23, forcing heavy loads on players who weren’t always completely healthy.

Now, Vanderbilt has 12 players who have gotten minutes, allowing Ralph to rotate in a full second unit when needed. That’s exactly what she did when the season opener against Kennesaw State turned into a blowout, with Washington and Jordyn Cambridge taking the whole fourth quarter off.

Vanderbilt’s improvements haven’t just come via a quantity of players ― the difference is in quality as well. With last season’s leading scorer Ciaja Harbison having graduated, plenty of reinforcements were needed.

Both Cambridge and Iyana Moore, who missed all of last season with injuries, are now back and playing some of their best basketball yet. Moore is averaging 13.3 points, 2.3 assists in 31.9 minutes per game. Cambridge is averaging 12.5 points, 5.5 assists in 34.6 minutes per game.

“Jordyn is the heart, soul and engine of our team,” Ralph said of Cambridge in her media availability on Nov. 10. “From start to finish, every day in practice, every game, I know what I’m gonna get from her.”

The “big three” of Cambridge, Washington and Moore are giving Vanderbilt a dynamism on both sides of the ball that’s been tough for the opponents to keep up with. Meanwhile, they’re complemented by a group of returners, freshmen and transfers that has been impressive as well.

Graduate Duke transfer Jordyn Oliver has started all four games and is shooting 62.5% so far, the highest on the team. Meanwhile, she’s averaging 7.8 points and 6.0 rebounds to help in the paint.

Freshman guard Aga Makurat is drawing eyes as well by starting the year 8-for-16 from behind the three-point line, even starting the first two games for the Commodores.

Across the board, Vanderbilt has the depth needed to endure such a long season and make a run at the Tournament. With seven different players averaging at least 5 points so far, the Commodores are far less reliant on any one player now than they were on Harbison last season. That difference may make the Commodores’ style of play more consistent, and make their success more sustainable.

Winning in the clutch

All of Vanderbilt’s last three wins have been within three points. In all three games, the Commodores’ opponents had shots in the last minute that could’ve given them the lead or sent the games to overtime. Of course, that propensity for drama is a double-edged sword.

Let’s start with the upside: the Commodores are making shots and getting stops when it matters most. Ralph said as much following Wednesday’s win over Western Kentucky.

At the end of the day, the plays we needed to make down the stretch, we made,” Ralph said. “The shots we needed to make, we made. The free throws, we made. We got a pretty great defensive stop at the end, which I thought was much better than the last two games.”

In these late fourth-quarter situations, Vanderbilt is getting the job done. The Commodores are hitting their shots, holding strong on defense and making their free throws when their opponents are forced to foul.

As encouraging as that is, Vanderbilt fans are surely not as happy about how the Commodores are ending up in those tight late-game situations. The Commodores were up 14 points at the start of the fourth quarter against Fairfield before allowing the Stags to crawl back within 1. They led by 11 midway through the third against Western Kentucky, a lead that also shrunk to 1 with 39 seconds to go.

To avoid more scares, Vanderbilt needs to get better at killing off those games in which it has a double-digit lead. That probably needs to start on defense. The Commodores allowed 70 and 74 points in the last two games, including over 20 in the fourth quarter of both. Vanderbilt will need to keep up its high-octane style of defense throughout all 40 minutes: The Commodores won’t be able to afford any of these fourth-quarter lulls when tougher SEC competition comes to town. While they continue to pull out these wins in the clutch though, the positives certainly outweigh the negatives.

The road ahead

After this first four-game stretch, the Commodores have one more home game against Alabama State on Monday, Nov. 20 before heading to Las Vegas for the South Point Shootout over Thanksgiving Weekend. In Las Vegas, Vanderbilt will face off against Iowa State and Northern Iowa. The Commodores will need to keep racking up wins, as their December schedule will be more difficult and include matchups against Butler and Dayton.

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About the Contributors
Frankie Sheehy, Former Deputy Sports Editor
Frankie Sheehy ('24) wrote for The Hustler Sports section and graduated from the College of Arts and Science with majors in economics and law, history and society. He was also the president of the Vanderbilt Chess Club and a superfan of the Chicago White Sox. You can reach him at [email protected].
Vince Lin, Staff Photographer and Graphics Staffer
Vince Lin (‘27) is from Zanesville, Ohio, and is majoring in computer science. Vince is a staff photographer and plans on covering sports and concerts. Outside of school, you can find him at the gym, rowing, lifting weights, playing games with friends or sleeping. You can reach him at [email protected].
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