White, Vanderbilt readying for SEC play

Dec. 28, 2016

By Zac Ellis

On campus in Nashville – The last time Vanderbilt’s women’s basketball team stepped on the hardwood, head coach Stephanie White saw plenty of positives. The end result – a 78-66 home loss to No. 8 Louisville – wasn’t one of them, of course. But in White’s first season in Nashville, the Commodores’ performance against the Cardinals served as a necessary measuring stick for the future.

“I think it’s going to help us in the long run, there’s no doubt about that,” White said of the loss. “I’m just proud of the way we battled.”

Indeed, the final score didn’t tell the full story of Vanderbilt’s effort against Louisville. The Commodores (10-2) hung tough with a Final Four-caliber Cardinals squad in perhaps the biggest test thus far of the ‘Dores’ season. Size, health and experience all favored the visiting squad, but Vanderbilt looked the part of a team that doesn’t back down.

To White, the matchup was a growing opportunity for Vanderbilt. Now the coach hopes her Commodores can close out nonconference play strong with Wednesday’s road trip to Memphis. “I’m really looking forward to taking what we can out of this game and building on momentum heading to Memphis, and then onto SEC play,” White said.

Louisville ventured to Memorial Gym boasting six players standing 6-foot-2 or taller; Vanderbilt, meanwhile, has no player taller than 6-1. Starting forward Marqu’ez Webb (back) and guard Rebekah Dahlman (hamstring) were limited with injuries. But the Commodores still found themselves within striking distance of a talented opponent late in the game. A three by Cierra Walker at the start of the fourth quarter pushed Vanderbilt to within two points, 58-56.

However, Louisville’s experienced paid off in the final moments. Myisha Hines-Allen, last season’s ACC Player of the Year, scored five straight points to extend a Cardinals’ lead that they wouldn’t relinquish.

Louisville is the kind of consistent program White hopes to build at Vanderbilt, and her team did a lot of things well against the Cardinals. For instance, a much bigger Louisville squad won the rebounding battle but just a single board (45-44). Three freshmen reached double-digits in scoring: Walker (12 points), LeaLea Carter (10) and Kayla Overbeck (10). And despite experience working against them, the young Commodores kept things tight in until the fourth quarter.

Despite the loss, Vanderbilt players saw value in their effort against Louisville.

“I think that just shows our heart and our fight,” guard Rachel Bell said. “That also shows our acceptance of the coaching staff and the freshmen coming in, just everyone. Like I said, we compete everyday. We play so hard. I think that just tells you a lot about our team, because we fight every night. We want it so bad. That just shows you who we are.”

Before Vanderbilt enters SEC play at Texas A&M on Jan. 2, it must hit the road for a matchup with Memphis on Wednesday. It also must clean up the negatives that White saw in that loss to Louisville. The Commodores entered that matchup as the SEC’s leader in 3-point shooting (41.7 percent) but connected on just 6-of-17 from deep (35.3 percent). They hit just nine of their 16 free throws (66.7 percent), a drop from their regular average (78.4 percent), which was 10th nationally. Moreover, though Vanderbilt stood tall on the boards, it also allowed Louisville to dominate points in the paint, 48-26.

Those are all lessons White takes to heart as her team prepares to close out nonconference play against Memphis (6-6). But the coach said Louisville most closely mirrors the challenge of Vanderbilt’s upcoming SEC schedule, which features top-25 teams like Kentucky, Mississippi State and South Carolina, not to mention in-state power Tennessee. That’s why there’s a lot to like about the Commodores’ future.

But Vanderbilt knows its work is far from finished.

“I think we’re as ready as we should be at for this time, for a new staff, a new system, five freshmen,” White said. “We really try not to look too far ahead. We try to stay in the moment. Every day we try to get one percent better, and we’re going to be like that all year long.”