NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The first 11 games of the Shea Ralph Era have been full of exhilarating triumphs and crucial lessons learned during both victories and defeats.
Now the road becomes a bit more difficult as Vanderbilt looks to a horizon that includes the start of the Southeastern Conference schedule. Going into a lengthy break before being thrown back into the fire, the Commodores (6-5) ended the first month of the 2021-22 season on a high note with a 52-41 win over Albany on Wednesday at Memorial Gymnasium.
“Every win means something to our team. Every game we get is an opportunity for us to get better,” Ralph said. “So (Wednesday) I think we did that in some ways so I’m looking forward to the next week with our players.”
Vandy did not play its greatest game of the season Wednesday. It shot 37.3 percent from the floor and turned the ball over 21 times. But a solid defensive effort led to 24 Great Dane miscues. The Dores also held a 36-24 rebounding advantage thanks to prime positioning and energetic effort.
Ralph’s team, playing in front of hundreds of children during the program’s Education Day, led for 38 minutes and six seconds.
“I’m really proud of our team for gutting out a win (Wednesday),” Ralph said. “It was not pretty on either side of the floor, but we grind-ed it out, and sometimes you have to do that in terms of winning a game. We’ve been on plenty of other sides of it this year already where we weren’t able to grind it out at the end.”
Wednesday’s win was the culmination of a taxing stretch for the Commodores to begin the season. They started the campaign 1-2 after losses to Little Rock and Middle Tennessee, respectively, before consecutive victories got them back over .500.
On the Virgin Islands at the Paradise Jam, Vanderbilt impressively beat Rutgers one day after falling by a bucket to No. 9 Arizona. At Kansas on Sunday the Dores lost by seven – but were only down four with 34 seconds left.
Vanderbilt’s five losses have been by an average of just 10.2 points.
“I really think, except for maybe a couple games in the beginning of the year where we were trying to figure out our identity, especially offensively, I don’t think anyone thought that we would be competitive in terms of some of the games we played. And honestly we could have won every game we played thus far – especially over the last three weeks,” Ralph said. “That’s really encouraging. And you to start to see them believe it. That’s a difference-maker.
“When your kids and your players start to believe that they can win and they start to give that effort and that’s how they play and that’s how they act, that’s how you become a winner. That’s how you create championship teams.”
Vandy has three nonconference games left before beginning league play, but first it will have nine days between games, a perfect opportunity to regroup and refocus on an effort to take the next step as a team. The Commodores host Presbyterian on Dec. 18 before traveling to Saint Joesph’s on Dec. 21 and hosting Alabama State on Dec. 28.
That trio of matchups leads into the SEC opener at No. 18 Texas A&M on Dec. 30. Plenty of time for the Dores to improve even more so than they already have – and they certainly have a lot.
“We’ve improved a lot. You can tell we’ve improved,” freshman Iyana Moore said. “So many people have doubted us, but as long as we’re the only ones in the locker room who believe in ourselves we’re going to continue to get better and grow. We come in every day knowing that we have a chip on our shoulder knowing we have a lot to prove. We’ll just continue to get better.”
— Chad Bishop covers Vanderbilt for VUCommodores.com.
Follow him @MrChadBishop.