March 20, 2024 

How Shea Ralph got Vanderbilt back to the NCAA Tournament

Dores went from being picked last in the SEC before the season to making the Big Dance

Jordyn Cambridge has spent her last six years in Nashville, Tenn. playing for Vanderbilt. Her first season, she won just seven games. And her second and third seasons weren’t much better.

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And then Shea Ralph showed up to become the Commodores’ new head coach.

“Her first year, I won the most games I’ve won in my entire time here,” Cambridge told The Next. “I made it to the WNIT. Her coming in her first year and doing that, I was like, ‘Oh, wow, this coach, she’s legit.’”

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Ralph was hired in 2021, picking Vanderbilt as her first head coaching job after 13 seasons as an assistant coach at her alma mater UConn and five at Pittsburgh. Ralph made an immediate impact when she arrived, winning 16 games in 2021-22, but after a slight dip to 12 wins in 2022-23, the jump in the last calendar year may be even more significant. 

The Dores nearly doubled their wins with a 22-9 record. They finished sixth in the SEC, and are going dancing for the first time in 10 years. Today, Vanderbilt will fight for the No. 12 seed against Columbia in a First Four matchup in Blacksburg, Va. on Wednesday night.

But almost no one expected this would be their year to turn it around. In preseason polls, SEC media ranked Vanderbilt to finish dead last, and coaches predicted they’d finish second-to-last. to So how’d they get here?

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“I think on the teams I’ve been on it’s so easy to get complacent with losing and being on a team that nobody expects us to win,” Cambridge explained of her earlier years at Vandy. “But with this team was like, ‘Nah, that’s not what we are.’”

Vanderbilt’s transition began with a mindset shift. As Cambridge recalled, teams in the past were chained to their lower half of the SEC fate. But when Ralph arrived, she was adamant about establishing a winning culture, but also teaching her players success isn’t instant. And it’s paid off.

“When we came here a couple years ago, the team that we took over didn’t know or understand what it looked like or what it felt like to win — to just win off the court, to win in practice, in the community,” Ralph said to media after their SEC Tournament loss.

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A complete team

And this transformation is also practical. Last year’s squad started with just 11 players, and then lost leaders Cambridge and Iyana Moore to season-ending injuries. Cambridge said they were ready for a breakout season last year, but were completely cut off at the knees. But now they’re healthy, and have been ready for a shot at the big dance since June.

“We have a complete team from top to bottom,” Moore told media. “We have a bench. We have defensive presence, offensive presence. We have shooters, scorers when we need it. Our team is really a complete team.”

Vanderbilt’s Jordyn Cambridge (3) during the Women’s Basketball SEC Tournament between the Vanderbilt Commodores and the Florida Gators at Bon Secours Arena in Greenville, South Carolina on Thursday, March 7, 2024. (Photo credit: Mackenzie Harris/SEC)

And Moore and Cambridge’s journey defines the wholeness of the Commodores. The two spent all of last season rehabbing together, keeping the shot at success in the next season front of mind the entire time.

“Iyana decided she wanted to be great. I think a part of that is because she got to rehab with Jordyn,” Ralph said. “Along the way, while Jordyn was teaching her what was on the other side of this really hard thing she was going through, they developed a really strong bond.”

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But the bond stretches the entire roster. Cambridge said it isn’t extravagant, but they bond over frequent Target runs, catching movies and hanging out in each other’s dorms or apartments. The team was recently spotted at the SEC Men’s Basketball Tournament in Nashville.

“I think it makes it easier for us to learn what each other likes on the court. [Because] we can figure out what we we like and what we don’t like off the court,” Cambridge said.

Time heals all wounds

And finally, the team is clicking in part because of the laws of college basketball. It’s Ralph’s third year in Nashville, and she’s finally got her own system for a team she built. 

“As we moved through establishing our standards and expectations, we were able to meet some kids where they were and bring them along with us,” Ralph said. “We were able to find some new homes for other players that didn’t really want what we had to offer.”

It was only 13 months ago, as Coach Ralph drove around Denver on a recruiting trip last February, that she told The Next that an NCAA Tournament appearance was “very realistic” for her team. And now, she’s right.

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An uphill battle

Although the Dores smashed the country’s expectations, the rest of the season is far from smooth sailing. They’ll start off the NCAA Tournament against a solid Columbia team, with a gritty offense and a vengence to take down SEC teams. But there’s a reason Vanderbilt got here.

“What Shea Ralph has done at Vanderbilt is pretty incredible,” Division I Women’s Basketball Committee Lisa Peterson told reporters. “Really great growth for them and excited to see what they continue to do.”

Peterson chalked up Vandy landing on the right side of the bubble, even if it means playing in a First Four game, to the number of wins and the quality of their losses. Vanderbilt only dropped one non-conference game, and played how they should’ve throughout the SEC season. For the most part, they lost to the top five SEC teams, and beat the bottom eight teams.

One of their few upset losses to a red-hot Florida in the SEC Tournament likely knocked them down a few pegs. Peterson explained the emphasis the selection committee put on conference tournaments — where Texas A&M might have had a worse SEC record than Vandy, their win in the quarterfinals solidified them the No. 11 seed, while Vanderbilt’s loss pushed them down to the play-in. 

“I’m disappointed, and they know, but I don’t want them to feel like they failed,” Ralph told media after the Florida loss.

And even though Vanderbilt has learned how to win, they’re still green to March, and it’s up in the air if their early SEC Tournament loss will fuel their redemption fire or totally shake their confidence.

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Back to expectations

Regardless, for a storied program like Vanderbilt, which has made 27 NCAA Tournament appearances but none in the last 10 years, this year’s chance has new weight.

“Vanderbilt women’s basketball has a tradition of excellence and competing for championships and being in the NCAA tournament,” Ralph told media Tuesday about her philsophy. “We’re going to focus on doing it the right way, and then we’re going to go out and compete for those championships. So, yeah, it’s been 10 years, but we’re right back where we should be and we’re really excited about that.”

Although most of her players are fresh to the March Madness stage, Ralph knows a thing or two about this tournament, winning a championship of her own as a player for UConn back in 2000. And after three years in Nashville and 24 years since her last tournament as a player, it’s all fitting into place.

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Written by Gabriella Lewis

Gabriella is The Next's Atlanta Dream and SEC beat reporter. She is a Bay Area native currently studying at Emory University.

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