Memorial Minutes: A season of promise

An NCAA Tournament win capped off a promising season for Vanderbilt Women’s Basketball.
Head coach Shea Ralph coaching against Baylor in the NCAA Tournament, as photographed on March 30, 2024. (Hustler Multimedia/Miguel Beristain)
Head coach Shea Ralph coaching against Baylor in the NCAA Tournament, as photographed on March 30, 2024. (Hustler Multimedia/Miguel Beristain)
Miguel Beristain

After 10 long seasons, the Vanderbilt Commodores made their return to the Big Dance in 2023-24. In just the third year of Shea Ralph’s tenure, the Commodores paired a 13-1 nonconference record with a positive record in the SEC to bring Vanderbilt back to the sport’s highest competition. 

While the Commodores’ run was cut short by a 80-63 loss at the hands of a surging No. 5 Baylor team, Vanderbilt was still able to capture its first tournament win in over a decade when they defeated No. 12 Columbia 72-68 in its First Four matchup. The Commodores made a statement this March: Despite nearing the conference’s basement for the better part of a decade, the program had turned a corner.

It’s hard not to recognize how desperately Vanderbilt needed this year. Before their run this season, the Commodores had more head coaches (3) than years in which they had more than four conference wins (2) since the 2014-15 season. The 2010s were every part of unforgiving to Vanderbilt, capped off by a canceled 2020-21 season in which the Commodores could field just seven active players by the end of.

This season was a return to Vanderbilt’s basketball heritage; a return to being the program that made the NCAA tournament for all but two years from 1988-2014. Once again, Memorial Gymnasium was packed to the brim with excited fans.

At the head of this new excitement is one person: Ralph. Program builder, leader, fiery coach; all the labels fall short of describing how remarkable this turnaround has been. The Commodores once again look like a competitive team with a strong home-court advantage. Ralph brought that back.

Let’s take a look at the pieces she will need to retain and develop heading into next season for the Commodores to take the next step and progress further in March.

Impressive returners

If there is any reason to believe that Vanderbilt will be able to replicate its success from this season moving forward, it’s the fact that Iyana Moore will be back to lead the Commodores. After missing the entire 2022-23 season, Moore became a star in her junior year on West End. The guard led the Commodores in points (13.9) and 3-pointers made (51) en route to All-SEC second-team honors. Additionally, Moore’s scoring average jumped up to 17.6 points per game, sixth in the SEC, during conference play — an indication of the heights that she can reach further removed from a season-ending injury.

Aside from the high expectations for Moore, the surrounding cast of upperclassmen looks to be equally impressive. While the Commodores will miss Moore’s backcourt running mate in All-SEC defensive team selection Jordyn Cambridge, who is now out of eligibility, forwards Sacha Washington and Justine Pissot should be expected to return next year.

For a team that was heavily predicated on perimeter scoring, Washington’s (12.1 PPG, 7.9 RPG) ability as a post scorer was crucial for the Commodores in 2023-24. Despite Vanderbilt’s noted size disadvantage during the season, Washington was able to win on the low block when it was needed, with the best example being her 16-point, 15-rebound performance against Columbia in the First Four. As Vanderbilt continues to add size around Washington, expect her to continue ascending as a star in Ralph’s system. 

While Pissott was not a centerpiece of Ralph’s system in just her first year on West End, the 6’4” forward was productive enough on both sides of the court to earn a starting role fairly early into next season. With a full offseason as a Commodore ahead, Pissott should be able to take a leap in her junior year.

Rising stars

The biggest revelation of the season for the Commodores — aside from Moore’s stardom — was Khamil Pierre. The freshman did not come in with the gaudiest of expectations but quickly became indispensable in Ralph’s rotation as a result of her length and interior scoring. Pierre’s progress became the most noticeable over Vanderbilt’s final three postseason games, where the forward scored in double-digits in all three and was Vanderbilt’s MVP in its loss to Florida with a 16-point, 15-rebound performance of her own.

Despite coming into the season towards the end of the bench, the leaps that the freshman took should not be overlooked. If Pierre is to replicate even half of that development throughout her sophomore season, the Commodores will have another star in the making. Either way, Pierre should be locked into a starting role in Ralph’s rotation next year after becoming an important piece down the stretch this season.

Though Pierre was the star of the show, there was a cast of underclassmen who also showed flashes throughout the year. One to keep your eye on for next season is Polish guard Aga Makurat, who profiled as a future 3-and-D guard across her limited playing time. The highlight of her season was an 18-point outing against Western Kentucky where the freshman canned 5-of-7 shots from behind the arc. Standing at 6’2”, look for Makurat to take strides defensively and earn a bigger role in Ralph’s rotation next season.

Who’s coming in?

Thinking about how Ralph can continue to retool and evolve her roster with incomings leads to thinking about high school recruiting and the transfer portal. While the rise of NIL and the modern era of college basketball means that the portal will likely play a huge role, let’s first take a look at those that are definitely coming to West End: Ralph’s freshman class.

The centerpiece of Ralph’s class will almost certainly be five-star recruit Mikayla Blakes. Ranking as the No. 10 recruit in the country, Blakes is an electrifying guard that will look to fill the shoes of the departing Jordyn Cambridge seamlessly. Looking at the formula that worked this season, expect Ralph to continue to emphasize perimeter threat in her recruiting.

Though the rest of Ralph’s high school class is yet to be announced, some of those roster holes can be filled by the portal. Though it’s hard to target specific players at this stage, it’s fairly clear what profiles Ralph will be seeking out in the portal. First, and most pressing, would be more depth and size at the center position. Especially in SEC play, Vanderbilt was constantly playing at a disadvantage due to its lack of size at the center position. Sizing up and providing more interior protection should be a priority for Ralph.

Aside from that massive need, starting to gather a collection of rangy, lengthy wings could help to raise Vanderbilt’s ceiling. Pissott and Makurat are a start, but continuing to bring in more length and shooting at the shooting guard and small forward positions will be important to developing Vanderbilt’s offensive and defensive capabilities. Snagging an experienced wing in the portal could do wonders for a roster that already has a variety of profiles to offer.

While Ralph will need to continue developing her own coaching style and her roster, the 2023-24 season was a great start. Vanderbilt proved that it turned a corner this year, but continuing to be aggressive in its roster building and talent development will determine if the Commodores can sustain success on West End.

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About the Contributors
Anish Mago
Anish Mago, Former 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 .
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 .
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].
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