GREENVILLE, South Carolina — A regular season of exhilarating highs and unexpected, heart-breaking lows is over. A new start is on the horizon this week for the Vanderbilt women’s basketball team.
The Commodores (14-15) open their postseason run at 10 a.m. CT Wednesday against Auburn (10-17). They do so with some refueled confidence after Sunday’s win over No. 16 Kentucky at Memorial Gymnasium.
“The last three games we’ve played pretty well,” Vanderbilt head coach Stephanie White said. “We were able to come away with a win because of our execution against Kentucky. For us it’s continuing the next step in our process and the next step in our process is winning an SEC Tournament game.”
Vandy’s 2019-20 campaign got off to an impressive beginning. Twelve times in 16 games the Dores left the court victorious – that stretch included a last-minute win at Washington and a road triumph at Georgia early in the SEC portion of the slate.
But it also included a season-ending injury to guard Brinae Alexander. Then losing streaks of six and five.
Seven of the team’s 15 setbacks also came against ranked opponents.
Freshman guard Kiara Pearl, freshman forward Kyndall Golden, junior forward Autumn Newby and senior guard LeaLea Carter have all missed multiple games due to injury this season. They could have undoubtedly changed some of Vandy’s fortunes the past four months.
“I just know that we are playing for something bigger than ourselves,” Vanderbilt sophomore guard Jordyn Cambridge said. “Every time we have a player go out, now it’s like we got to play for them. They had the game taken from them. So it means a lot for us. I’m just trying to play for my teammates.”
White, in her fourth season, has seen her program make significant strides. Vanderbilt’s 14 wins double the seven wins each from the 2018-19 season and 2017-18 season.
The team’s 10 home victories were one more than each of the last two seasons combined. And the play of freshman guard Koi Love, junior guard Chelsie Hall and Cambridge provide immense hope for the future.
“You see the energy in spite of everything – and the camaraderie and the chemistry that they have. That’s the first step,” White said. “Any of the coaches I’ve covered in television and I’ve talked to, it has to start to locker room before it can transition to the floor. We’ve made huge improvements on the floor as well.
“We’ve taken big strides on the floor and we know that next level for us is continued skill development and consistency. We’re not going to make them instantly older, we’re not going to instantly make them more experienced. But I think you’ve seen over the last two or three weeks our upperclassmen have improved and our kids give us what they can give us right now.”
Now the time comes to try to take that aforementioned next step.
Vandy draws an Auburn side it split two regular-season meeting with. The first occurred Jan. 2 where the Commodores were relentless in a 77-55 win in Nashville.
In the rematch? Auburn turned the tables for a 70-62 result.
The Tigers played better down the stretch with all four of their league wins coming since Jan. 23 and two of those coming in February. They began the year 0-5 in the SEC before somewhat recovering.
“The first time we played (Auburn) was really the best we played all year in that first quarter,” White said. “For us, the second time, our turnovers, the fouls and defensive energy and intensity and really missing a lot of easy shots hurt. It’s as simple as making your layups, giving yourself an opportunity, taking care of the ball and then defensively staying disciplined, making them hit tough and contested shots and keeping them of the foul line.”
The winner of Wednesday’s contest advances to face Arkansas (22-7) at 1 p.m. CT Thursday.
NASHVILLE ON THEIR MINDS
Early Tuesday morning, while the Commodores slept soundly in a Greenville hotel, middle Tennessee was rocked by tornadoes and severe storms.
Vanderbilt’s student-athletes, staff and coaches awoke to the news of the devastating weather event and the discussion was ever-present in the team’s travels between practices at Wade Hampton High School and Bon Secours Wellness Arena.
“It gives us great perspective. We have an opportunity to play for something bigger than ourselves and we’re representing our city and we’re bringing awareness to the devastation that happened in our city,” White said. “We want to go out and we want to represent well and we want to bring some joy, we want to bring awareness. At the end of the day this is a basketball game. We’re talking about people losing their lives, losing their homes, losing their belongings and we got to rebuild.
“Right now we have an opportunity to put our city on center stage and we want to take advantage of that.”
While everyone within the Vanderbilt program currently makes Nashville its home, the tornado event struck more of a chord with Cambridge, a Nashville native who graduated from the Ensworth School.
“I’m from Nashville. I’ve lived there all my life. Everything that happened is really hitting home,” Cambridge said. “That’s our home and our community. We just need to play for our city and go get this win.”
• Vanderbilt leads the series with Auburn 29-23.
• The Commodores are 5-0 against Auburn at the SEC Tournament.
• Auburn and Vandy are meeting for the third time in a single season for just the second time – the two programs played thrice in the 2003-04 campaign.
• Vanderbilt last won an SEC Tournament game in 2016.
• The Dores are 48-34 in SEC Tournament games and 1-3 in such games played in Greenville.
• Cambridge has 83 steals this season, the 10th-most in a single Vanderbilt season. Cathey Bender (84) is ninth and Karen Booker and Jade Huntington (87) are tied for eighth.
• Hall is 96 points away from becoming the program’s 38th player to score 1,000 career points.