An Unforgettable Moment

Shea Ralph, Commodores relish first victory of new era

by Chad Bishop

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — “It was an experience I’ll never forget.”

The words of Shea Ralph, a veteran coach and veteran in the game of college basketball who, Tuesday, patrolled the sidelines as a head coach for the first time in her life. She did so as the leader of the Vanderbilt Commodores and she watched her team inside Memorial Gymnasium run past visiting Gardner-Webb with relative ease during a 75-59 victory.

“I don’t know that it could have been any better in terms of just enjoying something in the moment,” Ralph said. “I’m not always the best at that. So to have people around me that kind of force me to is really cool.”

Ralph’s task from the get-go has been challenging. Her program was coming off a season that was lost halfway through due to challenges stemming from COVID-19.

A number of former Commodores transferred elsewhere and a number of current ones are coming off an injury. That gave Ralph a young and relatively inexperienced roster with which to work with going into a maiden voyage that will likely be more rocky than calm for the next five months.

But on Tuesday the waters were still.

“It’s been a great experience for me, just coaching in general. Been doing it my whole life, just playing and coaching basketball, and I never really envisioned myself doing something this cool,” Ralph said. “Having this opportunity as a first-time head coach at Vanderbilt University is truly a dream come true. What makes it even better is the staff I have around me, the friends, the great colleagues, my husband and then our team who is nonstop working for me every day since the moment that I stepped on campus. And they’ve been through a lot. 

“So just to see them out here having a good time today meant the world to me.”

Ralph’s Commodores took 2:33 to score their first points for their new head coach. But once they did they were off and running.

Led by eight Brinae Alexander points, Vandy quickly jumped out to a 14-2 lead and held a 18-6 margin after 10 minutes. The advantage grew to a game-high 19 points in the third quarter as the Dores used an efficient offense with crisp ball movement leading to high-percentage looks at the basket.

Five Commodores scored in double figures led by Alexander’s 20. Kaylon Smith had 12, Demi Washington added 11 while Jordyn Cambridge and Kendal Cheesman each contributed 10 in a game where the home team never trailed.

Vanderbilt also out-rebounded the Runnin’ Bulldogs by 20 and held them to 39-percent shooting.

The outcome was never in doubt in the fourth quarter allowing Ralph and her staff to relish in a moment in time as the clock hit all zeroes.

“Just seeing her resume and where she’s been and what she can bring to this team, she’s brought it all and more,” Cheesman, a freshman, said of Ralph. “She talks about trust and relationships and for us to have this night for her? It was huge. She deserves all of it.”

There were, of course, some red flags along the way – namely the 23 turnovers Vandy threw away. But those miscues were a distant memory by the time Ralph had crossed the court and was able to embrace her daughter and her husband.

She then went into her locker room where she was doused in confetti and soaked in the cheers of her Vanderbilt family.

“I told them enjoy tonight. This is really special,” Ralph said. “It’s the first game after a really tough year and they’re home for it and they won the first game of our season. That doesn’t happen for a lot of teams. We have some things to build on, but tonight we’re going to enjoy this win.

“This night isn’t about me. I am the leader of the program. I’m the face. But this is about so many more people and there’s so much that goes in to what we do on a day-to-day basis.”

— Chad Bishop covers Vanderbilt for VUCommodores.com.
Follow him @MrChadBishop.