The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
Since 1888
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.

Memorial Minutes: Arrival

In less than three years on West End, head coach Shea Ralph has turned Vanderbilt Women’s Basketball into an NCAA Tournament contender.
Barrie Barto
Sacha Washington drives to the basket during Vanderbilt’s 71-63 win over Louisiana Tech, as photographed on Dec. 3, 2023. (Hustler Multimedia/Barrie Barto)

On April 13, 2021, 992 days ago, athletic director Candice Lee announced that Shea Ralph would be the new coach of Vanderbilt Women’s Basketball. Ralph joined the Commodores after what seemed like a lifetime with the University of Connecticut. Perhaps one of the most accomplished Huskies of all time, she helped bring seven national championships to the program: one as an All-American guard and six as an assistant coach. 

Four seasons under former head coach Stephanie White saw the Commodores go 42-79, with just 13 total SEC wins over that span. After an abysmal start to the 2020-21 season for White, which was later cut short due to COVID-19 and player opt-outs, she was let go. 

Ralph inherited a broken program. In less than three full seasons, she’s fixed it. 

Vanderbilt closed out the nonconference portion of its 2023-24 schedule with a 13-1 record, including a perfect 9-0 slate at Memorial Gymnasium. The Commodores’ only loss came against No. 3 NC State, a game in which they were projected to lose by 20-plus points.. 

The road to this point was anything but easy. Ralph’s first two seasons saw her go 26-35 as Vanderbilt finished 13th and 12th in the SEC, respectively. Of course, much of that was due to the program being in a disastrous state upon White’s departure. Mix in the devastating injuries to Iyana Moore, Jordyn Cambridge and more at the beginning of last season, and the hill became even steeper. Still, with how different Ralph and Co. have looked through the last two months of 2023, one thing is certain. 

Vanderbilt has arrived. 

Culture, culture and more culture

Throughout all of the 2022-23 season, Ralph insisted that her, her staff and her players were building something special. They knew that it would come with time, and everyone bought into that. 

“What I want my team to learn is to continue to understand the importance of consistency,” Ralph said after a loss to Georgia in the spring. “There needs to be direct conversation about how we can change to be better. In the huddles, in the locker room; It needs to be taken and understood as to how we can be better.” 

From the first game of 2022, Vanderbilt only had eight healthy players on its roster. The depleted Vanderbilt roster was really never going to compete in a loaded SEC against the likes of South Carolina and eventual national champion LSU. Ralph made sure not everything was lost, though. She was intentional about instilling a winning culture on West End. 

A culture where veteran players emerge as leaders, both on and off the court. Last year, it was graduate transfers Ciaja Harbison and Marnelle Garaud. This year, after a season of learning from those two, junior Sacha Washington has emerged, along with program stalwart Jordyn Cambridge, who has been with the Commodores since 2018. Washington and Cambridge are averaging 14.8 and 14.5 points, respectively. Yet, it’s been their tenacity on the other side of the court that’s helped propel Vanderbilt to one of the best records in the nation.

Washington averages 8.5 rebounds, 2.2 steals and 1.8 blocks per game, anchoring the paint for the Commodores. Cambridge, despite standing at just 5’9”, is pulling down 8.1 rebounds per game to go with an SEC-leading 4.3 steals per game. The two of them, along with the Commodores’ hard-working team defense, are a large reason that Vanderbilt ranks second in the SEC in steals (11.8), as well as sixth in opponents points per game (56.8).

Little sisters

Its often hard to assess teams’ true forms due to the lopsided strength of schedule in the non-conference that they often play. This is the case with Vanderbilt. Quality wins over Iowa State and Butler demonstrate that the Commodores have taken strides towards contending, but the rest of their wins have been against non-power five teams. 

Of course, there is one other way to make sense of how strong a team is despite a lack of quality opponents: Margin of victory. In the four games since the Hustler’s last Memorial Minutes, the Commodores have completely routed their opponents. Over the past four games combined, the Commodores have beaten their opponents by an average of 24.5 points. Compared to last season, when Vanderbilt closed out its final four games of the non-conference with a 3-1 record and a margin of victory of just 12 in its three wins to go with a 12-point loss, there’s clear improvement. 

Beating up on lower tier teams, often colloquially referred to as little brothers/sisters, depending on the sport, is one of the first steps that a team must take towards contending. Not only does it build up a group’s confidence ahead of the grueling three months that is SEC play, but it boosts its resume as well. The NCAA Tournament selection committee will certainly look favorably on a team that dominated through the first two months of competition. Assuming Vanderbilt can hover around .500 in the SEC, it should find itself in play for a spot in the Big Dance. 

The future 

Vanderbilt’s true colors should be on display immediately, as it’ll face Mississippi State (13-2) on the road for its first game of conference play. The Bulldogs are not so different than the Commodores, in a lot of ways. Like Vanderbilt, they are led by a guard-forward tandem in Jerkaila Jordan and Jessika Carter. Jordan, a 5’9” senior, is averaging a career-high 17.2 points and 6.7 rebounds per game. While her efficiency from beyond the arc is down from last season, she still converts on the deep ball at a 35.8% clip, meaning she needs to be marked at all times. Carter, while the 3-pointer is not a part of her arsenal, still anchors the paint for the Bulldogs, averaging 15.1 points and 9.6 rebounds per game. 

Mississippi State also possesses two elite shooting wings in Lauren Park Lane and Debreasha Powe. The two are shooting 42.3% and 43.0% from downtown, respectively, and both are averaging double figures in the scoring column. With four players averaging over 10 points per game, the Bulldogs are scoring 79.6 points per game, which ranks fourth in the SEC. Vanderbilt’s stellar defense will have its hands full from the opening tip. 

After their clash with the Bulldogs, the Commodores will return home to take on Florida (9-3) before hitting the road again to take on last-place Kentucky in Rupp Arena. If Ralph’s squad can go 2-1, or perhaps even 3-0, over that stretch, then there will not only be justifiable cause to consider them for the tournament, but to rank them inside the Top 25 of the AP Poll.

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About the Contributors
Aiden Rutman
Aiden Rutman, Sports Editor
Aiden Rutman (‘25) is a student in Peabody College majoring in human and organizational development and minoring in communication studies. He formerly produced The Hustler’s sports podcast, Live from West End. In addition to writing and podcasting, Aiden is an avid New York sports fan, and he loves playing sports, spending time outdoors and trying new foods. You can reach him at [email protected].
Barrie Barto
Barrie Barto, Editor-in-Chief
Barrie Barto ('25) is majoring in medicine, health & society with neuroscience and communication of science & technology minors in the College of Arts and Science. She previously served as Photography Director. When she's not strolling around campus with her camera, 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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