Memorial Minutes: Let’s go dancing

With wins over Missouri and Georgia, the Commodores have theoretically stamped their ticket to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2013-14 behind wily veterans, young scoring talent and an inspiring leader.
Bella LaChance celebrates with teammates after scoring against Georgia, as photographed on March 3, 2024. (Hustler Multimedia/Savannah Walske)
Bella LaChance celebrates with teammates after scoring against Georgia, as photographed on March 3, 2024. (Hustler Multimedia/Savannah Walske)
Savannah Walske

From 1999 to 2014, Vanderbilt Women’s Basketball made the NCAA Tournament for 15 straight years. Sounds like a foreign idea to a school that hasn’t seen a non-NIT postseason game in men’s or women’s basketball since 2017, but it’s true. Vanderbilt was a consistent powerhouse in the SEC and head coach Shea Ralph has proved that the program can again ascend to that level. 

With wins over Missouri and Georgia, the Commodores ended their regular season with a 22-8 regular season and a top-half finish in the SEC. With their resume, it’d be hard to keep the Black and Gold out of the NCAA Tournament. Though a good showing in the SEC Tournament could help, all signs point to the ‘Dores in the Dance.

So, go ahead, Ralph & Co.

Put on your dancing shoes.

It’s a simple game

Warning: I’m about to say something obvious and you might roll your eyes. 

The Commodores win more games when they don’t turn the ball over and hit their free throws.

Good teams are good at the things they can control. Obviously, you would love to see Iyana Moore drop 30 every night, Jordyn Cambridge to get 5 steals a game and Sacha Washington to average a triple-double. These things aren’t possible all the time — shots sometimes won’t fall and you can’t control that. However, clean passing, smart decision-making and converting on unguarded charity stripe opportunities are things you can control.

Against Missouri and Georgia, Vanderbilt won the turnover battle 18-14 and 19-11, respectively. Consequently, they won the points off turnovers stat 17-11 and 16-7. As a group, you must make opponents play half-court offense. Easy breakaways are free points and the team with more generally comes out on top.

As for free throws, Vanderbilt has been stellar on their three-game win streak to close out the season. The team went 47-of-55 (85.5% on a more-than-ample sample size) in its last three matchups, far surpassing its season average of 72.7%. The correlation between making free throws and winning games is something I documented a month ago when the Commodores were on their five-game losing slide. They made 68.8% (55-of-80) of their chances at the line in those games.

The answer to the question of why isn’t obvious at first glance: Vanderbilt played the majority of its games at home during those five losses and the majority of its games away from home during its win streak. But, the free-throw line is the same unguarded distance in every building. 

It’s a mystery that can perhaps be explained by the pressure of playing a powerhouse squad like South Carolina and LSU, or perhaps we can chalk the improvement up to simple practice and development in the gym.

“The thing that I’m most proud of is [the growth after] the five-game stretch where we really struggled to close games and to win games that we had been leading,” Ralph said. “I know that our team has grown from that because now we are closing games.”

Ralph has continued to touch on the importance of putting teams away, and it’s a lot easier to do when you make your free throws. 

If the Commodores hope to make a deep tournament run, they need to do the simple parts of basketball well: don’t turn the ball over and make your free throws.

Fountain of youth

What’s so exciting about this program is the youth of the squad. Yes, Cambridge and Bella LaChance just had their senior day, but most contributors have multiple years left on West End. 

Khamil Pierre averages 8.5 points and 5 rebounds a game and just won her fifth SEC Freshman of the Week honor. That is a program record and tied for the most in the conference. She was also recently selected to this season’s All-SEC Freshman team.

Another underclassman, Justine Pissott, is 9-of-14 from beyond the arc during the Commodores’ final three games and hitting her stride at the perfect time. The New Jersey native has the team’s best 3-point percentage (39%) for any individual who took more than three 3s.

Perhaps the brightest spot of them all is Moore. Many people see her as a veteran presence on the team, but this is only her second official season due to her ACL injury last year. That means the leading scorer for the Commodores has two more years of eligibility. Moore earned a second-team All-SEC selection after averaging 13.7 points per game.

These three stars-in-the-making headline a group of young players that still has plenty of talent waiting in the wings from Aga Makurat to Aiyana Mitchell to future Commodore and top-10 national recruit Mikayla Blakes. Overall, though our focus over the next month will be on those departing the program, the foundation of Ralph’s squad is set and is here to stay. 

Tournament talk

“Today was really special. To be able to do that on senior night, it’s just amazing. Bittersweet. But, glad we got the W because that’s my last time playing in Memorial,” Cambridge said.

On her senior day and final home game, Cambridge joined the 1,000-point club at Vanderbilt and also set the program record for career steals at 339. She vaulted the Black and Gold into victory and locked down a bye in the SEC Tournament and likely a spot in the NCAA Tournament as well.

This game felt like the end of a feel-good basketball movie. Records were broken, win streaks were kept alive and a tournament ticket was punched in the end credit scene. Now, the Commodores will be playing with house money. That makes them dangerous.

“I want to compete to win [the SEC Tournament],” Ralph said.

It’ll take some shots to fall its way, but with a bye secured, Vanderbilt could walk into the quarterfinals against Ole Miss after just one win versus Florida. (It should be noted that Vanderbilt lost by six points against the Rebels earlier in the season after missing 10 free throws… sound familiar?) 

I get it. I’m counting chickens, but you’ll have to excuse a Vanderbilt senior for getting excited about finally playing some good ol’ fashioned, meaningful postseason basketball.

“I still am looking forward to playing our best basketball — I don’t think we’ve done that yet,” Ralph said.

Hopefully, Ralph & Co. can elevate their game when it matters most. The Commodores tip off on Thursday, March 7, after the conclusion of the Arkansas-Auburn game which starts at 6 p.m. CST.

P.S. Huge shoutout to LaChance for being an unspoken high-energy, team-chemistry individual for the Commodores the last few years. She was there when the team only had eight players available last season and has been on West End as long as anybody else, but she used her senior day press conference to talk up Cambridge instead of herself:

“It’s an honor to be around [Cambridge] and to follow her. She’s helped me to become the leader that I am on this team,” LaChance said.

It only feels appropriate to close the piece with her bucket to end the game.

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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].    
Savannah Walske
Savannah Walske, Staff Photographer
Savannah Walske (‘26) is from San Francisco and is double majoring in psychology and Spanish in the College of Arts and Science. When not shooting for The Hustler, you can find her playing guitar, photographing pretty Californian landscapes and obsessing over her dog. You can contact her at [email protected].
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