Memorial Minutes: Stop and start

After its second shutdown due to COVID-19, the women’s basketball team is finally getting into a rhythm in SEC play.

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Koi Love drives to the basket against Kentucky on Jan. 17, 2021. (Vanderbilt Athletics)

Betsy Goodfriend, Deputy Sports Editor

This year’s Vanderbilt women’s basketball team is the embodiment of the phrase “don’t judge a book by its cover.”

If you looked at the team’s 0-3 SEC record and their shocking season-opening road loss to Arkansas-Little Rock, you would certainly be disappointed.

However, this team has worked through so many obstacles, and they’re undefeated against those obstacles.

Three players opted out of the season. Three more are unable to play due to injury. Sophomore guard Demi Washington is out for the season after being diagnosed with myocarditis following a case of COVID-19.

And yesterday, a team spokesperson confirmed that graduate transfer guard Enna Pehadzic is out for the season with an undisclosed injury. Pehadzic averaged 13.1 points per game this season, third-highest total on the team.

If you’re keeping count, that leaves just seven healthy players on the roster as of Jan. 17— and even healthy has a different definition this season.

The team has already been shut down twice due to positive COVID-19 cases and contact tracing. The mental and physical toll such stoppages take on players who have been preparing for the season since this summer is immense.

Vanderbilt’s first three games of the season were cancelled as a result of the first shutdown, and the most recent shutdown cancelled its final non-conference game and postponed its first three SEC contests.

“We couldn’t do anything for two weeks, and then you’re in the middle of the season,” head coach Stephanie White said of the recent shutdown. “In the preseason, we had time to work our way back.”

Shutdown on the Court

Last week’s 80-56 loss to Alabama showed how much rust the Commodores had after only having one full practice with its rotation of eight players to prepare for the game.

Alabama went on a 16-2 run to close out the first quarter, and Vanderbilt wasn’t in a rhythm on the offensive end to limit the damage. As a team, the Commodores only made four of their 16 field goal attempts in the opening quarter.

Overall, it was tough for Vanderbilt to match up with the Crimson Tide in every aspect of the game. Alabama outrebounded Vanderbilt 53-34 and shot 43.1% from the field, compared to Vanderbilt’s lowly mark of 28.8%.

A bright spot for the Commodores was celebrating point guard Chelsie Hall’s milestone of 1,000 career points.

Hall has worked harder than anyone in the program and deserves credit for sticking with the team amid all the roster changes during her four years on campus.

Four days later, Vanderbilt hosted No. 5 South Carolina and made the kind of history no one wants to make.

Vanderbilt didn’t score a point in the second quarter. Not one point.

South Carolina is a national title contender with a strong defense, but being shut out in a quarter is unheard of.

Vanderbilt recovered in the second half and shot 41.7% while mostly playing against South Carolina’s bench players.

South Carolina was always going to be a difficult team for the Commodores to match up against because of their size and depth advantages, and playing the Gamecocks in just their second game back from a complete shutdown was too much for the squad to overcome.

Starting to Shine

In spite of the challenges, Vanderbilt nearly knocked off No. 12 Kentucky on the road Sunday afternoon. If the 24-point loss to Alabama and the 63-point loss to South Carolina demonstrated the difficult reality of playing with half the number of players that most teams have, Sunday’s effort showed the fight around which the young Commodores can build the program.

Junior forward Koi Love, who was having one of the best starts of the season out of any player in the country, finally got her groove back after two rough games against Alabama and South Carolina. Love set a career-high with 32 points on 10-of-25 shooting.

“[Love] is number one on everybody’s scouting report,” said White. “She has an opportunity to take that as a challenge in not just elevating her game and what she can do to combat that [defense], but how she can get everybody else involved.”

Love and Hall each had to play over 37 minutes with the seven-player rotation in their game against the Wildcats.

The question of who will step up to help Love and Hall is yet to be answered.

Guard Brylee Bartram has shot 34.3% from three-point range, but only three active Commodores have made a three-pointer this season: her, Love and Hall.

Defenses are starting to key in on Bartram’s sharp-shooting from behind the arc, and there aren’t enough other offensive threats to divide defenses’ attention.

Forward Yaubryon Chambers scored 10 points and collected nine rebounds in her best game of the season against Kentucky. If Chambers can become Vanderbilt’s go-to near the basket, she can create more space for the shooters on the team. At only 6’1”, Chambers faces a tough challenge against the elite SEC teams and their size.

What’s Next?

Vanderbilt’s previously-postponed game against Florida will take place in Memorial Gym on Thursday, Jan. 21. The Gators present the most favorable SEC matchup Vanderbilt has faced so far this year.

Both teams are pretty even, except for the fact that Florida has an SEC win and Vanderbilt (4-4, 0-3 SEC) is still searching for its first victory in conference play. Florida (8-6, 1-5 SEC) earned its first SEC win over Auburn 68-54 on Sunday. 

Aside from the difference in the win column, Vanderbilt averages 74.4 points per game to Florida’s 73.7 points. Vanderbilt also averages just 1.2 fewer rebounds per game than Florida.

Vanderbilt could change its fortunes with a win over Florida, and the close loss to Kentucky was an encouraging sign of the future, both for the rest of the season and for the years to come.

And with the stops and starts associated with playing a basketball season in a pandemic, who knows when the next opportunity for an SEC win could arise.