SEC Start in Texas

Vanderbilt opens league play at Texas A&M

by Chad Bishop

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — This season has been full of –and will have many more – firsts for the Vanderbilt women’s basketball program.

The next of those firsts will come at 8 p.m. Thursday when Shea Ralph coaches in a Southeastern Conference game as she leads the Commodores into a matchup at No. 23 Texas A&M.

“This whole year has felt surreal. It’s hard to believe that January is right around the corner,” Ralph said Tuesday. “I feel like my (introductory news) conference was last week and now we’re in conference play. You try to enjoy every moment and then the whirlwind happens and it’s hard to do that.

“Luckily I have people every day that remind me to do it and I’m having a great time with this team. They’re so much fun to coach so I’m looking forward for the opportunity to play again in a couple days.”

Ralph’s team, winners of four straight, goes into hostile territory as a confidence bunch with their first-year head coach. It’s coming off a 94-42 victory over Alabama State on Tuesday at Memorial Gymnasium, a victory in which the Commodores buried a program-record 17 3-pointers.

Iyana Moore, a freshman, was at the heart of that record-setting performance thanks to a memorable night of her own – the 5-foot-8 guard made nine 3s, also a Vandy single-game record.

So because of all that the Commodores won’t be trepid when stepping inside Reed Arena on Thursday.

“We definitely knew that we had to come in here (Tuesday) and get a win after coming off a break. You need to be as positive as you can going into SEC,” Moore said. “You need to have that good, positive momentum and I think (Tuesday) we showed that we can play defense and, after a break, still be mentally focused and prepared and I think that’s a good thing we have as a team.

“We’ve built so much so far as far as we’ve came. We just got to keep building.”

At 9-5 after 14 nonconference games, Vandy hasn’t lost since Dec. 5 when it fell 74-67 at Kansas. And all five of the team’s losses have been to teams who are currently .500 or better and who are a combined 43-11 overall.

The SEC schedule, of course, is a great and different challenge. Six of the league’s teams reside inside The Associated Press Top 25 and no team is less than four games above .500.

Ralph knows that for her team to compete day-in and day-out against the league’s best it will have to continue to buy into the concept of what it means to be a great teammate.

“We talk about every day utilizing that day to get better, whether we play games or we’re in practice,” she said. “One of the things that stuck out to me when I was playing and coaching with some of the best players in the country was the best players in the country, the best players to ever play the game, you could tell (they were the best) because they made everyone on the court better.

“I want our team to understand how important and vital that is. It’s not always about many points you score, how many shots you take. What’s fun about basketball is playing the team game where you make everyone on your team better, you highlight their strengths, you hide each other’s weaknesses – it’s fun. And it’s also a great way to be a really good team.”

No. 23 Texas A&M (10-2) beat Texas San Antonio 77-51 on Dec. 20 – its only game since a 87-75 loss at Texas Christian on Dec. 12. The Aggies are 7-1 at home with the lone defeat coming at the hands of arch-rival and 12th-ranked Texas.

Senior guard Kayla Wells (17.5 ppg) leads three Texas A&M players who averaging double figures in scoring for head coach Gary Blair.

Vanderbilt has played Texas A&M just 12 times and has dropped seven in a row in the overall series. Its last win in Reed Arena came in 1997.

“Our focus is always going to be us first, but obviously preparation is key and important as well. Every team we play is going to be a little bit different and we’ll have to focus on trying to do what we can with their strengths and do what we can with our strengths,” Ralph said of the matchup. “That will be the tweaks that we make, but we’re always going to be us, we’re going to focus on what we do and try to do it really well day-in and day-out.”

— Chad Bishop covers Vanderbilt for
Follow him @MrChadBishop.