Memorial Minutes: Lucky seven in Vegas

The Commodores are undefeated at 7-0 and earned their first Power Five win in the South Point Shootout in Las Vegas.
Vanderbilts bench reacts to a three-point play by Jordyn Cambridge on Nov. 25, 2023. (Vanderbilt Athletics)
Vanderbilt’s bench reacts to a three-point play by Jordyn Cambridge on Nov. 25, 2023. (Vanderbilt Athletics)
Vanderbilt Athletics

In my last analysis of Vanderbilt Women’s Basketball, I said that head coach Shea Ralph’s stated goal of making the NCAA Tournament could be realistic, so long as the team continues to play as well as it has. At the South Point Shootout in Las Vegas over the weekend, the Commodores extended their undefeated start to 7-0 with a 68-53 win over Iowa State on Friday and a 68-64 victory over Northern Iowa on Saturday. The Iowa State game was Vanderbilt’s first Power Five win of the season. With the Commodores undefeated through seven games for the first time since 2011-12, let’s take a look at what has gone right so far and whether it can continue.

Cambridge on fire

After missing 2022-23 with an injury, Jordyn Cambridge is back as Vanderbilt’s star guard. She leads the team in minutes, rebounds, assists and steals and is second in points after scoring a season-high 28 points against Northern Iowa.

On defense, Cambridge is the engine of Vanderbilt’s aggressive system and the press that Ralph likes to play. She’s been everywhere, intercepting passes, forcing half-court traps and creating turnovers in all kinds of ways. Cambridge recorded an incredible six steals in just the first half against Northern Iowa, and her 31 steals overall this season is the highest total on the team, and the SEC, by far. 

Cambridge is just as dangerous running the point ― making jumpshots, finding Sacha Washington in the paint and dishing it out to the Commodores’ other shooters to make the offense work. A scoring average of 14.7, along with 5 assists per game, shows just how important Cambridge is to Vanderbilt’s offensive success.

As impressive as her ability has been, it’s been Cambridge’s durability that has shone the most. Even in a year coming back from an injury, Cambridge has played without any minutes restrictions. She’s been on the floor for an average of 34.4 minutes per game and played 39:30 on Saturday in the second game of a back-to-back. As the games continue to get harder, Cambridge will be crucial for the Commodores’ to keep winning.

Newcomers’ impacts

While the “big three” of Cambridge, Washington and Iyana Moore are all familiar faces, the freshmen and transfers have stood out as well. For example, Tennessee transfer Justine Pissott is Vanderbilt’s fourth-highest scorer despite being only sixth in minutes. She posted eight points and six rebounds against Northern Iowa, as well as a +11 rating. The sophomore guard is shooting 37.5% from behind the line, and made three deep balls in the Commodores’ win over Alabama State.

Joining Pissott is freshman Aga Makurat, one of Ralph’s top recruits. Makurat has made two starts and is shooting even better from behind the three-point line at 46.2%. With those two, as well as Cambridge and Moore being able to shoot from deep, Vanderbilt’s offense has gained a dimension that was much more shallow last season. Having four dangerous three-point threats has been difficult for opposing teams to handle, and has contributed to building big leads for the Commodores.

Senior Duke transfer Jordyn Oliver has also made an impact, especially in the paint. The 5’10” guard has made every start for Vanderbilt and has brought an average of 6.3 points and 7.0 rebounds per game, including 17 total offensive rebounds.

At times over the last couple seasons, Ralph has had to patchwork together a starting five, and has been unable to give her top players a rest without jeopardizing the game. Now, with much more competition for minutes, there’s less of a drop-off when players need a breather. The new energy, along with the experience brought by some of the transfers, has made Vanderbilt much stronger as a team.

Power Five win

Despite being one of just three undefeated teams left in the SEC (No. 1 South Carolina and No. 25 Mississippi State), critics could pretty reasonably nitpick the Commodores’ schedule, especially at home. Vanderbilt’s two big wins came against Kennesaw State and Alabama State, two teams that aren’t expected to be strong this season. However, beating head coach Bill Fennelly and Iowa State by 15 points should turn a few heads.

Iowa State did have a brutal offseason, losing Lexi Donarski and others to the transfer portal while Ashley Joens went to the WNBA. This is undoubtedly a rebuilding year for the Cyclones. Still, beating a program that’s made four straight NCAA Tournaments should be a big feather in Vanderbilt’s cap. Ralph was ecstatic about the team’s achievement.

“We had to be resilient enough to fight through those runs and we did what we had to do to make sure we ended up on the right side of the scoreboard,” Ralph said. “We came away with a big win on the road during the holiday season. It’s such a great feeling for our team and I’m happy to see their hard work paying off.”

Vanderbilt will next hit the road for an ACC/SEC Challenge game on Wednesday, Nov. 29 at 6:15 p.m. CST at No. 5 NC State. That’s going to be a tall task for Ralph and co., to put it mildly. Either way, this tough draw is a big opportunity for Vanderbilt. If the Commodores can pull off a miracle, it will be hard for the AP voters to overlook them.

Even in the more likely event that the undefeated run ends on Wednesday night, Vanderbilt will have more of a measuring stick to see where it stacks up against tougher opposition. With still more than a month to go until the SEC schedule starts, this game will be a nothing-to-lose test run to see where Vanderbilt really is, and how realistic an NCAA Tournament berth is.

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About the Contributor
Frankie Sheehy
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].
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