Memorial Minutes: Foot on the gas

With a perfect start in SEC play, Vanderbilt is showing why it’s built to last in March.
Iyana Moore celebrates Vanderbilts win, as photographed on Jan. 7, 2023. (Hustler Multimedia/Vince Lin)
Iyana Moore celebrates Vanderbilt’s win, as photographed on Jan. 7, 2023. (Hustler Multimedia/Vince Lin)
Vince Lin

How much difference can a year make?

One year ago today, Vanderbilt was at the bottom of the SEC. After four double-digit losses to begin conference play, Shea Ralph and the Commodores found themselves last in the SEC as all of the injury-fueled concerns that surrounded the team in nonconference play came to light. The team began to slide and was not able to get their feet under them in what quickly turned into a disastrous season. 

Today, Vanderbilt is tied at the top of the SEC. With three wins to start conference play, Vanderbilt has won in a variety of different ways and, most importantly, shown that it can play through adversity. Take the Commodores’ weekend win over Florida, where Vanderbilt fought through 25 turnovers and just three made field goals in the first quarter to take down the Gators. Or, going on the road and coming out on top against Mississippi State and Kentucky with strong play down the stretch. The Commodores captured their best SEC start since 2008-09 with their 95-73 defeat of Kentucky.

The ethos of Ralph’s Commodores is clear and is a testament to everything she’s built from a historical low just three seasons ago: a talented, resilient bunch who play hard for their coach. At 16-1 and tied for the most wins in the country, Vanderbilt is rolling right now and giving its fans every reason to believe it can keep going as its SEC schedule picks up. 

For a team that narrowly missed out on its first AP Top 25 ranking since the 2014-15 season this week, Vanderbilt has certainly given the committee a lot to chew on. Now, for Minutes.

Bringing Moore to the table

Of all the storylines surrounding Vanderbilt’s dominant start, perhaps the most impressive has been Iyana Moore’s comeback. Just 14 months after tearing her ACL, Moore has become one of Vanderbilt’s most important players and a centerpiece of Ralph’s offense. Through 17 games, Moore is now up to 12.7 points per game and complemented Jordyn Cambridge (14.7 PPG, 7.3 RPG) in what has become one of the league’s best backcourts. What’s more promising is that after a slower start while getting her feet underneath her, Moore has reached new levels as of late — she’s averaged 28.6 points per game in the SEC thus far, including a career-high 37 points against Kentucky. She’s looked flat-out unstoppable.

With the ability to score at all three levels, Moore’s resurgence has put opposing defenses in quite a bind. If teams decide to sag off and try to defend the paint, Moore is a willing and able shooter from behind the arc. If they look to put pressure on her backcourt partner Cambridge, Moore has the ability to take advantage of the extra space and finish through contact at the basket. Take a look at this crafty finish from last night en route to her career-high.

Moore has also been Vanderbilt’s premier threat in transition, something that willed the Commodores back when their offense went stagnant against Mississippi State. Thus far, Moore has been a perfect cog in Ralph’s system and has also embodied the culture the third-year coach has built. Expect Moore to continue ascending as her confidence continues to grow.

SEC adjustments

What’s been the most impressive about the Commodores start is the number of different ways they have won games thus far — with dominant post play, the long ball, and stifling defense. Vanderbilt’s ability to win in a variety of end of game situations is a testament to the program that Ralph has built in just three short years and is a quality that will make them dangerous in the SEC and in March. Through three games of SEC play alone, Ralph has already started to make some adjustments to the more athletic style of league play.

Coming into the season, the Commodores knew Washington was going to be one of their most important players. As a dominant post player, Washington feasted in the nonconference portion of Vanderbilt’s schedule to the tune of 14.5 points and 8.6 rebounds per game. For large stretches of games early in the season, Washington carried Vanderbilt’s offense as the Commodores were building chemistry. Yet, as evidenced by Vanderbilt’s start to conference play, Washington’s role may change a bit in the upcoming months. With just 25 points through the first three conference games combined, Washington has taken a step back against the lengthier, more athletic SEC frontcourts and deferred more to her backcourt. 

Despite all of Washington’s early season dominance, Ralph has looked elsewhere for production in the frontcourt, and has increasingly relied on freshman Khamil Pierre. A 6’2” forward, Pierre has exactly the combination of length and athleticism that matches up well with SEC competition. 

“We need [Pierre] to do some of the things she did today for us today to be successful for us down the stretch,” Ralph said after Vanderbilt’s victory over Florida.  “You saw how Khamil impacted the game defensively and on the boards; that’s something we will need in the SEC.” Despite shooting 0-8 from the field, Pierre tallied five rebounds and three steals across 27 minutes played against Florida. Ralph stuck with the freshman against Kentucky and was rewarded with a 16-point, six-rebound performance where Pierre showed all of her tools in a statement victory. As Pierre continues to get more comfortable in the rotation, expect to see her role continue to expand.

The road ahead

Now on a nine-game winning streak and with an undefeated start to SEC play, the expectations for Ralph and the Commodores continue to rise. With a deep run in March squarely in sight, Vanderbilt is sure to get tested by a grueling SEC schedule filled with dangerous opponents. For their next two games, the Commodores will take on Missouri and Auburn, both teams still winless in the SEC. Past that, one of Vanderbilt’s biggest games of the season lies in a road trip to Knoxville to take on the Volunteers, who also are undefeated in the conference. 

The Commodores’ upcoming stretch will prepare them for the following gauntlet of SEC contenders that awaits from Jan. 28 to Feb. 8. In just 11 days, Vanderbilt will face No. 1 South Carolina, Ole Miss, Alabama and No. 7 LSU, with all four teams near the top of the conference. Though the results may not be as rosy as Vanderbilt’s 16-1 start, the stretch should give the group experience competing against the best that they will need when the calendar flips to March. 

In terms of rankings, Ralph and the Commodores have certainly done enough to capture their first entry to the AP Top 25 in nearly a decade. But, of course, she won’t tell you that. The Commodores will continue to focus on what they can control, one game at a time.

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About the Contributors
Anish Mago, Deputy Sports Editor
Anish Mago ('24) is from West Windsor, N.J., and is studying economics and political science in the College of Arts and Science. He previously served as a staff writer for the Sports section. When not writing for The Hustler, Anish enjoys playing basketball and rooting for all Philly sports. He can be reached at .
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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