Tourney Time for the Dores, Ralph

Vandy begins postseason run at Bridgestone Arena on Wednesday

by Chad Bishop

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Thirty games into head coach Shea Ralph’s first season, Vanderbilt has had its fair shares of emotional highs and humbling lows.

All that is in the past now, however, as the Commodores stare dead ahead into their first postseason with their new coach. Vandy opens SEC Tournament play at 11 a.m. Wednesday at Bridgestone Arena against Texas A&M.

“I think if you wait to this late to talk about tournament time then it’s not really a great thing for your team,” Ralph said this week on The Anchor podcast. “So what we’ve talked about year is training like a championship team and laying the foundation of a championship culture. That means that we treat every game like a Final Four game. We prepare the same the same way for each game the way that we’re going to prepare for a conference tournament.”

Ralph, who has essentially used an 8-9 player rotation for much of the season due to injuries and offseason and midseason departures, has registered 13 wins in her maiden campaign. One of those victories was against No. 15 Florida, another was against traditional power Rutgers and the 11 others came in the comfy confines of Memorial Gymnasium.

Vanderbilt also endured a six-game losing streak in September as the long grind of a long season and the harshness of the SEC competition took its toll. Thus, the start of the postseason comes as a welcome change to the grind of the regular slate — but does not change the mentality of Ralph’s squad.

“The preparation and the details of what we do on a day-to-day basis changes not one bit,” Ralph said. “We prepare the same way and we will continue to do that as long a I’m here because I learned that that’s how you win. You treat every game the same way so it doesn’t feel any different when you get to a tournament like the SEC Championship. It doesn’t feel any different when you make it to the Final Four because you understand each games holds a level of importance. When you train that way it becomes a habit.”

The Commodores ended the regular season with a 77-71 defeat at Alabama. That was the team’s fifth SEC loss by less than 10 points.

Vandy has leaned on the play all season of its seasoned and senior point guard Jordyn Cambridge (10.1 points per game) who is second nationally in total steals and averages 4.1 assists per game.

Brinae Alexander leads The Dores in scoring at 14.8 points per game due to her sharp-shooting touch from the outside and freshmen Iyana Moore (11.8 ppg) and Sacha Washington (6.2 rebounds per game) have given glimpses of what the future of Vanderbilt basketball will look like.

Ralph’s squad has become one of the nation’s best at forcing turnovers, but has often times been done in by its inability to defend opposing shots.

Vandy and Texas A&M met three weeks ago in College Station, Texas, where the Aggies won 76-58. That game had been rescheduled after the two were originally set to meet Dec. 30.

Texas A&M (14-14) has dropped five straight coming into the postseason. Head coach Gary Blair, in his final season leading the program, has three players scoring in double figures led by Kayla Wells’ 15.8 points per game.

Should Vanderbilt win Wednesday it would advance to face fifth-seeded Florida (20-10) at approximately 2:30 p.m. Thursday. The Commodores beat Florida on Feb. 24 at Memorial Gymnasium.

“I’m excited about the opportunity to compete in this tournament. I think we’re playing really well right now,” Ralph said. “Obviously we had this loss on the road (at Alabama), but still really happy with the development of some of our players, happy with our fight, disappointed in some of the mistakes we made down the stretch, but I feel like we’re in a great place as a team going into this tournament so we’re just ready to get back out on the court and get prepared and we’re ready to play.”

• The Commodores have lost four SEC Tournament games in a row having last won in the 2016 event where they went 3-1 in Jacksonville, Florida. Vanderbilt did not participate in the 2021 SEC Tournament.

• Vanderbilt is 4-9 all-time against Texas A&M and has lost eight straight in a series that dates to 1996. Vandy last beat the Aggies in 2014.

• Cambridge needs four steals to move past Cathy Bender (111) and Karen Booker (112) to move into second place in Vandy history for steals in a single season. Deborah Denton is first with 123.

• Cambridge has 214 career steals, the 10th-most in a Vanderbilt career. Rhonda Blades is ninth with 218.

• Ralph has for the fourth-most wins (13) in a single season by a first-year head coach at Vanderbilt. Stephanie White won 14, Joe Pepper won 15 and Jim Foster and Melanie Balcomb each won 22 in their respective first campaigns.

— Chad Bishop covers Vanderbilt for
Follow him @MrChadBishop.