Memorial Minutes: Overcoming adversity

After losing three of its last four games, how can the Vanderbilt Women’s Basketball team right the ship?
Jordyn Oliver goes for a layup, as photographed on Jan. 14, 2024. (Hustler Multimedia/Miguel Beristain)
Jordyn Oliver goes for a layup, as photographed on Jan. 14, 2024. (Hustler Multimedia/Miguel Beristain)
Miguel Beristain

“One of the best teachers you have is failing,” head coach Shea Ralph said after a 65-63 loss to Missouri on Jan. 14. 

While the Vanderbilt Women’s Basketball team has lost three of its last four games to top-tier SEC opponents, Ralph believes that a few losses won’t define this team. The Commodores now sit at 4-3 in conference play with the most difficult stretch of their schedule underway. However, this temporary adversity will only make this team stronger.

Vanderbilt hasn’t experienced much failure this season. The Commodores were impressive in nonconference play, only losing 70-62 to No. 7 NC State. Similarly, Vanderbilt started SEC play 3-0, beating Kentucky, Florida and Mississippi State. Since losing to Missouri on Jan. 14, Vanderbilt has lost to South Carolina and Tennessee. 

While the Commodores may have struggled in the past two weeks, adversity can be the catalyst for a stronger identity. The team can use these losses as fuel to the fire to make the NCAA Tournament. As the middle of SEC play approaches, Ralph and the Commodores will need to evaluate what has been working and what needs improvement to knock off some of the SEC’s best teams. Now, for Memorial Minutes. 

Problems in the paint

Vanderbilt’s Achilles’ heel is its lack of size in the paint. The Commodores are seemingly outmatched on the inside, facing much larger and stronger forwards in the SEC. South Carolina’s 6’7” starting center — Kamilla Cardoso — scored 23 points when the No. 1 Gamecocks beat the Commodores on Sunday. In Vanderbilt’s loss to Tennessee, forward Rickea Jackson was able to score 16 points and limit Washington to just 8 points. These bigger opposing players have exposed Vanderbilt’s small frontcourt. With Washington and Pierre both standing at 6’2”, they lack the size to make a big impact in the paint against top-tier SEC opponents.

This wasn’t as big of a problem in the nonconference schedule because the Commodores were at a clear talent and size advantage. Washington and Pierre were able to dominate in the paint and get offensive rebounds. For instance, Washington scored 33 points in Vanderbilt’s victory over Louisiana Tech on Dec. 3. Now, in SEC play, things have changed. More importantly, the roles of Washington and Pierre have changed. They are no longer the big scorers on this Vanderbilt offense, but used to draw defenders in and get open looks on the outside. Vanderbilt’s forwards are no longer as much of a weapon, leaving the backcourt to pick up the slack. 

While the Commodores are at a disadvantage in the paint, they’ve been able to manage it well. Ralph has acknowledged this issue and adjusted the offense to rely more on the backcourt to get points. Against South Carolina, Vanderbilt was just the fourth team this season to score at least 70 points against the Gamecocks. Still, Vanderbilt must find a way to contain larger forwards defensively. For Ralph and the Commodores, this may mean starting to double team centers and force more contested shots in the paint on the defensive end.

Fearless freshmen

It can be a difficult transition from high school to college basketball. At the collegiate level, the players are faster, more athletic and every player can shoot. Some freshmen can’t adjust to this style of play and have to learn over time how to compete in the SEC. However, for Pierre and Aga Makurat, there has been less of a learning curve. 

Makurat scored a career-high 18 points against a talented Gamecock squad. She shot 57% from beyond the arc and went 6-for-9 from the field in 24 minutes played. While the Commodores may have left Colonial Life Arena with a loss, Makurat was able to shine and show why she is an efficient scorer. Her ability to score at all levels means she is a tough player to guard and her taller frame makes her a solid rebounder on the defensive end. Makurat hasn’t had the perfect start to SEC play and has seen her minutes decrease thus far, but dropping 6 points against Tennessee and 18 points against South Carolina shows that she is ready to make an impact deeper in conference play. 

Pierre has been a consistent contributor to this Commodores squad all season. In SEC play, though, she has taken it to another level. Now a two-time winner of SEC co-Freshman of The Week, Pierre has made the jump from high school to college basketball with ease. In the last four games, Pierre has averaged 11.8 points and 7 rebounds per game. She has been a problem in the paint for opposing defenses, using her speed to get easy buckets around the rim. 

Makurat and Pierre could be Vanderbilt’s key to winning games against top-tier opponents in the SEC and postseason. They have both been on an upward trajectory since the beginning of the season and there are no signs of them slowing down. They provide the perfect spark off the bench and fit nicely into this Vanderbilt offense.

Looking ahead

Vanderbilt’s difficult schedule will only get tougher as it marches deeper into SEC play. This team will continue to be tested, playing Ole Miss and LSU in the next two weeks. The Rebels and Tigers are tied for second in the SEC standings, so Vanderbilt will need to prove it can play with the SEC’s best. 

The Commodores might be sliding in the SEC standings but this team has been doubted all year. Whether it was being snubbed of an AP Top-25 ranking when they were 16-1 or being voted to finish last in the SEC during preseason, the Commodores have been overlooked all season. For the most part, Vanderbilt has proven the doubters wrong at each step. 

Now, the Commodores are facing their first bit of adversity this season. How they bounce back from it will be telling. 

Vanderbilt will return to action with a home matchup against the Ole Miss Rebels on Thursday, Feb. 1 at 6:30 p.m. CST. 

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About the Contributors
Henry Oelhafen
Henry Oelhafen, Deputy Sports Editor
Henry Oelhafen (‘26) is a student in Peabody College majoring in human and organizational development and minoring in business. Henry grew up as a Vanderbilt sports fan and loves to talk about both professional and amateur golf. In addition to writing, he loves to play golf with friends, hike and try new restaurants. He can be reached at [email protected].
Miguel Beristain
Miguel Beristain, Senior Staff Photographer
Miguel Beristain (’24) is a philosophy and cellular and molecular biology double major in the College of Arts and Science from Murfreesboro, Tennessee. When not shooting for The Hustler, he can usually be found playing Magic the Gathering, exploring new restaurants or practicing guitar. He can be reached at .
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