NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Vanderbilt undoubtedly faces its toughest challenge of the season Thursday when arch-rival and fifth-ranked Tennessee comes to Memorial Gymnasium.
The matchup will be the first as a head coach for Vandy’s Shea Ralph in a rivalry that dates to 1979 – but the long-time assistant coach and former Connecticut star has faced the orange and white many times before doing her own personal basketball history.
“Obviously we had our own rivalry when I played Tennessee at UConn,” Ralph said. “So it’s going to be great to have them in our building (Thursday) and it will be another opportunity for us to do what we love.”
Ralph brings a squad into Thursday’s matchup that saw a five-game losing streak end Sunday at Mississippi State in a 70-63 defeat. The Bulldogs used a late run to pull away from the Commodores (10-6, 1-1 SEC) who led 52-49 with as little as 7:14 to play.
Vandy, however, hasn’t lost at home since Nov. 12 (the second game of the season) as it has continued to show marked improvement and confidence in Ralph’s first campaign at the helm.
“The only way we can use that (Mississippi State loss) to make us better is if we find the positive in that moment,” Ralph said. “What happened? And why did we splinter and why did we break apart and why did we get so overwhelmed?
“In that game we saw the best of what we would could be and the worst of who we could be – truly. We have to learn from that so that when we’re in that position again – which we will be – that is doesn’t result like that.”
No. 5 Tennessee (15-1, 4-0 SEC) started 9-0 before a Dec. 18 loss to Stanford at home. The Volunteers haven’t lost since and have won the last six in a row by an average margin of 28.2 points.
Jordan Horston leads a three-pronged attack of scorers by pouring in 15.5 points per game. The junior guard also leads the Volunteers in rebounding at nearly 10 per game.
Head coach Kellie Harper’s team leads the nation in defensive rebounds per game, field goal percentage defense and rebounds per game.
“Their size versus our size. That in and of itself on both ends of the floor is going to be a challenge,” Ralph said. “How do we keep the ball out of the paint and keep them from getting easy buckets? And if they miss a shot how do we keep them from getting offensive rebounds and until they make it?”
After Thursday, the journey does not get much easier for Vanderbilt.
The Commodores travel to No. 12 LSU (15-2, 3-1 SEC) at noon Sunday before hosting Missouri (13-3, 2-1 SEC), traveling to No. 1 South Carolina (15-1, 3-1 SEC) and hosting No. 19 Kentucky (8-4, 1-1 SEC), respectively.
“We have to lean into the adversity we’re going to face,” Ralph said. “We are who we are. And I think we’ve created a really good identity for ourself, but there is going to be adversity. This is not going to be easy. It shouldn’t be. That’s what makes it great.
“And that’s what makes the success of being a great team so much fun is the journey of how hard it is and figuring out at the end that we did something pretty special is what I want our players to feel.”
- Vanderbilt has won seven home games in a row.
- The Commodores rank ninth nationally in steals with 174.
- Vandy senior Jordyn Cambridge leads the nation with 64 steals and is third with four steals per game. The senior ranks 30th with 73 assists.
- Cambridge has 169 career steals and needs 42 more to move into the top 10 on Vanderbilt’s all-time steals list.
- Vandy freshman Iyana Moore ranks 31st nationally with 37 made 3-pointers.
- Vanderbilt trails the series against Tennessee 73-10 and has lost 12 of the last 13. The Commodores have lost six in a row to the Lady Vols at Memorial Gymnasium having last won Jan. 12, 2014.
- Ralph has faced Tennessee 12 times in her basketball career – as either a student-athlete or assistant coach – and has been a part of six wins and six losses in those matchups.