Memorial Minutes: Bouncing back

After a rocky midseason stretch, Vanderbilt has done a good job weathering the storm. What’s been going well for the ‘Dores?
Jordyn Cambridge attempting a three-pointer, as photographed on Feb. 1, 2024. (Hustler Multimedia/Josh Rehders)
Jordyn Cambridge attempting a three-pointer, as photographed on Feb. 1, 2024. (Hustler Multimedia/Josh Rehders)
Josh Rehders

No matter the season, life in the SEC is always very difficult. With a combination of talented veterans, impressive recruits and some of the best coaches in the nation, the result is typically one of college basketball’s most competitive conferences top to bottom. Year in and year out, teams in the SEC compete in some of the toughest environments in the country from January to March.

Of course, Vanderbilt head coach Shea Ralph isn’t a stranger to this fact. Despite sporting the blue and white of UConn in her playing days, Ralph embraced the struggles that come along with life in the SEC during her first two years as Vanderbilt’s head coach, where the team went just 7-25 in conference play. After the Commodores fell to No. 13 LSU on Feb. 8 — their fifth loss in a row, the third year head coach talked about the qualities that are needed to consistently succeed in the conference.

“Painful growth is important. Over the course of these last five games, we’ve learned a lot about how we need to be tougher,” Ralph said. “And I’m not just talking about physical toughness. I’m talking about mental toughness, too.”

And it’s clear how her team has responded. With impressive, resilient road wins against Georgia and Texas A&M, the Commodores have fought back to .500 in the SEC and have a real shot at their first winning record in the conference since the 2012-13 season. Vanderbilt has also climbed to No. 59 in NET rankings, a strong indication of the NCAA tournament contender Ralph has built on West End. 

After hitting a wall in the middle of their conference schedule, the Commodores have shown their toughness and fought back. Let’s take a look at what’s sparked that change.

Pierre’s progress

Before the season, much was made of Vanderbilt’s veterans. After having the 2022-23 season snatched away from them due to injuries, guards Jordyn Cambridge and Iyana Moore were rightfully expected to join Sacha Washington in carrying most of the load for Vanderbilt. Up until this point, that expectation has been right on — the three currently lead the Commodores in scoring and have been instrumental in Vanderbilt’s success.

And yet, it’s hard not to sit back and think that freshman Khamil Pierre has been Vanderbilt’s most impressive player this season. After finding her place in the rotation and adjusting to playing at the collegiate level during the nonconference portion of Vanderbilt’s schedule, Pierre has looked nothing short of a monster in the SEC. The freshman has scored in double figures in 7 of Vanderbilt’s 12 conference games, and averaged 17.3 points and 8.7 rebounds over the past week en route to SEC Freshman of the Week honors. It marked the third time she has won the award this season, a Vanderbilt record. 

Pierre’s most impressive performance of the season came in Vanderbilt’s road win against Georgia, where she put up 28 points on 75% (!) shooting to go along with 7 rebounds and 2 steals. Pierre looked flat-out dominant on the low block, converting all kinds of difficult finishes and showcasing crafty footwork en route to willing Vanderbilt to a victory. Take a look at this rip-through and finish through contact from the first half.

The outburst was followed up by another impressive performance against Texas A&M, where she was Vanderbilt’s leading scorer (11 points) in a gritty 49-45 victory. As fellow forward Washington has taken a bit of a step back scoring-wise from her dominance in the nonconference portion of Vanderbilt’s schedule, Pierre has stepped up as a strong scoring option to complement her backcourt of Cambridge and Moore. Expect Pierre to keep earning a place in Ralph’s starting lineup and for her high-level production to continue. 

Defensive toughness

Much has been made of Vanderbilt’s lack of size this season, and largely, it’s been a concern. The Commodores were able to cover up their size deficiency during nonconference games, but the SEC teams they have come up against have dominated the paint on both sides of the court — take Vanderbilt getting outrebounded 57-35 in their loss to LSU, for example. After the game, Ralph spoke about the fight that the Commodores need to play with, despite their disadvantage in size.

“You can’t give up 32 second chance points and 26 offensive rebounds,” Ralph said. “I know — we’re undersized. I get all of that. You just can’t give that up.”

A story of the season has been the Commodores’ stepping up when called upon by their coach, and they absolutely have turned it around defensively after their midseason stretch. Vanderbilt held Georgia to just 55 points in their win over the Bulldogs — an almost 10-point deduction of their season average — before holding a Texas A&M team that averages 70 points per game to just 45 to close out the week. The Commodores have proven to be able to play lights-out defensively while also turning their defense into offense, all on their opponent’s courts, nonetheless. 

After its recent stretch, Vanderbilt now ranks third in the conference in steals per game (10.5) and has shown its ability to shut down high-powered offenses despite the lack of size. The Commodores may have trouble altering opponents’ shots at the rim and grabbing contested rebounds, but they have shown they can play defense at a high level despite what many thought was a fatal flaw early in conference play. 

Almost there

Now sitting at 6-6 in the conference after a near-perfect stretch in nonconference play, Vanderbilt is in prime position to earn its first NCAA tournament berth in 10 seasons. Already having faced the three best teams in the conference — South Carolina, LSU and Tennessee — Vanderbilt will need strong play down the stretch to secure a bid to the Big Dance. 

That journey will start with a home rematch against the Volunteers on Sunday, Feb. 18, after the Commodores fell 73-64 in a highly-contested game at Knoxville in late January. With their fans behind them in round two, Ralph and Vanderbilt will hope to claim a win that would be instrumental in building its resume for the committee. 

After that, Arkansas, Missouri and Georgia await, with all three teams having losing records in the conference. Vanderbilt will look to avenge a home loss to Mizzou from earlier in the season and finish the season with at least a 3-1 record, but as we know, anything is possible in this conference.

And yet, no matter how this season finishes out, it’s hard not to be satisfied with the team and culture Ralph has built just three years in. From the struggles of the 2020-21 season up until now, Vanderbilt Women’s Basketball has once again cemented itself as the respectable program it is. With impressive recruits choosing Vanderbilt and other teams taking notice of Ralph’s quick rebuild, the trajectory of this program appears to be firmly pointing upwards. For now, let’s see how deep the Commodores can dig to extend their season into March.

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About the Contributors
Anish Mago
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 .
Josh Rehders
Josh Rehders, 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].
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