Memorial Minutes: Mind over body

The Commodores are on a four game losing streak, however, head coach Shea Ralph is most concerned with her team’s mentality.
Players on Vanderbilt huddle before the game, as photographed on Feb. 5, 2024(Michael Tung/Hustler Multimedia).
Players on Vanderbilt huddle before the game, as photographed on Feb. 5, 2024(Michael Tung/Hustler Multimedia).
Michael Tung

Perhaps I should stop writing Memorial Minutes. This is just my second of the season but Vanderbilt is 0-5 in the games I’ve had to review, so it’s possible I’m the bad luck. 

However, unlike its men’s counterpart, I think there’s a lot of hope for the women’s team. Over their four game losing streak, Vanderbilt played four top-50 squads, according to the NCAA’s NET ranking system. This group included No. 1 South Carolina in a game where Vanderbilt scored 74 — the second most points scored (Maryland scored 76) against the nation’s top defense. So, yes, the losses are unwanted and unfortunate, but in the SEC, they are to be expected. It’s all about how head coach Shea Ralph and her group responds.

The size issue

“There isn’t a basketball team on the planet that has everything,” Ralph said after the team’s loss to Ole Miss. “I don’t look at [the team’s size] as a disadvantage because I can’t — there’s not a point to that and there’s not a strategy for it either. The thing that we were missing today is toughness.”

Not only do I feel like a broken record — considering the issues on the men’s side with size — but this issue was also brought up in last week’s Memorial Minutes, so seemingly the point has been made. However, I’d like to take a different approach and emphasize Ralph’s position on the topic. She doesn’t see the team’s size as an excuse, rather, she sees it as an attitude shortcoming. 

I could point to the vast disparity between Vanderbilt and its opponents in points in the paint and rebounds (and trust me the disparity is vast), but that’s what happens when you play small ball in the SEC. The Commodores knew they would need to utilize this strategy given their roster. Partially, it seems the third-year head coach needs to try different lineups; even so, she also thinks her team needs a mental adjustment.

“I feel like right now our kids are leaning towards, ‘when it rains it pours.’ We’ll make a couple bad plays in a stretch, and then all of a sudden, it’s five or six and the momentum has completely shifted,” Ralph said after the loss to Alabama.

This quote is mainly in reference to the 28-14 fourth quarter collapse against the Crimson Tide, but mental toughness is a constant challenge Ralph gives to her players. Clearly, she doesn’t want to point to the stat sheet — instead, she wants to see effort on the court.

Only time will tell if Ralph makes adjustments to her lineup or if the change in mindset resonates with her squad, but SEC opponents will not be getting any smaller, so this means Vanderbilt will need to shoot well and find creative ways to get to the free throw line. Speaking of which…

The charity stripe

Part of the reason size also matters is trips to the free throw line. Vanderbilt is sixth in the SEC in free throw percentage at 70.9%, but is 12th in free throw attempts. They just don’t get to the line enough. 

Furthermore, during their four game losing streak, the Commodores shot 66.1% from the charity stripe, a drop of about 5%. This seems innocuous and unimportant, but 66.1% would drop Vanderbilt to 13th in free throw shooting rather than sixth. It’s a game of margins and that shows in the win-loss column. Indeed, a big part of the reason Vanderbilt lost to Ole Miss is that it shot 11-of-21 on free throws. They lost by just six.

Sacha Washington especially needs to improve at the foul line, as she shoots by far the most attempts (98 which is about 26% of Vanderbilt’s overall attempts) on the team, yet only shoots 61% in this category. This statistic is completely fixable in practice and must be a priority for Washington. If you’re an undersized center, you have to punish the opposition for being overly physical with you. If hack-a-Washington is in play, Vanderbilt must resort to prayers from beyond the 3-point line.

Free throws are an aspect of the game that is often taken for granted. It’s not flashy, but it is critical for good teams to be great. Those who can shoot well from the charity stripe can close out games and keep an opponent’s superior size or talent in check. For the Commodores to have success down the stretch, they must see an improvement in their foul line shooting.

The Ralph mindset

Sometimes, these Memorial Minutes can get repetitive — the same narratives, issues and results. For the past few years, the common thread in women’s basketball Memorial Minutes has been a faith in Ralph through tough losses. Well, if you’re looking for something new… look elsewhere. 

Ralph continues to inspire Vanderbilt and the results are starting to show up in both recruiting and the court. Given this, I wanted to give any doubters or first-time readers a sense of why Commodore Nation loves Ralph. For the last section, I’ll donate my time to three of my favorite Ralph quotes from the last week alone (compare these tidbits to this quote by Jerry Stackhouse for a kick). 

“I want them to focus on things we can get better at but also have confidence in how much we’ve grown,” Ralph said. “As you get older, you start to understand how important consistency is to becoming great at anything you do in life. Just show up and be consistent.”

These are words to live by. Ralph went on to talk about having a level head through ups and downs, and she brings that philosophy into the locker room. 

“Yes, this goes in the loss column for us,” Ralph said after the squad’s matchup against South Carolina. “But, I felt like they had to beat us today, and that, to me, is different.”

Don’t beat yourself up. On the court, there should be one enemy, not two. Teams that constantly self-sabotage are the most frustrating to watch because you see the potential hidden beneath piles of self-inflicted mistakes. Vanderbilt has not been able to avoid self-sabotage since South Carolina, but Ralph & Co. knows that if an undersized Commodore team is to make a run at the postseason, they need to cut out that second opponent on the court.

“You have to be tough enough to make a play when all of the things just aren’t going your way,” Ralph said.

How can you not love a coach like this? No excuses, only promises for improvement — a breath of fresh air for Commodore Nation.Vanderbilt will continue its grueling stretch of opponents when it plays No. 13 LSU at home tonight, Feb. 8, at 8 p.m. CST.

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About the Contributors
Sam Curtis
Sam Curtis, Former Deputy Sports Editor
Sam Curtis (’24) is from Wallingford, Conn., majoring in human and organizational development and French and minoring in data science in Peabody College. He was previously Assistant Sports Editor and Sports Copy Editor. When not writing for The Hustler, he cheers on the Philadelphia Eagles, the 76ers and Leeds United. Outside of sports, he enjoys traveling and learning about history and philosophy. He can be reached at [email protected].    
Josh Rehders
Josh Rehders, Former Photography Director
Josh Rehders ('24) is from Houston and is studying computer science in the School of Engineering. When he is not shooting for The Hustler, Vanderbilt Athletics or freelancing, he enjoys finding new music and good food. He can be reached at [email protected].
Michael Tung
Michael Tung, Staff Photographer
Michael Tung ('26) is majoring in computer science. He is currently a staff photographer and is originally from Dublin, Ohio. His interests are photography, engineering, all things aerospace and music. He can be reached at [email protected]
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