February 26, 2023
From A-10 to SEC: Vanderbilt’s Ciaja Harbison is the modern NCAA athlete
A quiet leader lighting up the SEC
The SEC is full of talent, with names out of South Carolina, Tennessee and LSU dominating the media cycle.
But a name atop the SEC statistical leaderboards you may not know is Vanderbilt’s Ciaja Harbison.
The 5’ 6” guard is the No. 2 scorer in the conference, with 19.5 points per game; No. 2 assister, with 4.4 assists per game, and holds the top spot in steals per game with 2.5. Harbison is the only player in the SEC to sit in the top two of three different conference statistics.
According to Harbison, people call her the “silent assassin.”
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Harbison originally hails from Louisville, Kentucky, where she started playing basketball in fourth grade, inspired by her father’s junior college career. Harbison and her father watched and played hoops together constantly.
The first thing she answers when asked about her recruitment is her family. And according to those around her, how she was raised directly translates to the basketball player she is now.
“I think the way that she was raised — the humility that she has along with the competitiveness, she never gets too high. She never gets too low. She just wants to play and compete,” Vanderbilt head coach Shea Ralph told The Next.
And when Harbison was being recruited out of high school, with no Power Five interest, a family-oriented program close to her own family was the priority. That brought her to Saint Louis University in the A-10.
In St. Louis, Harbison consistently put up impressive offensive numbers and grew year by year. She was a walking bucket, finishing her A-10 career as the program’s second-leading scorer in Billikens history. She was the A-10 Rookie of the Year, a two-time A-10 first-team member, and an A-10 second-team member her senior year despite missing over ten games due to a concussion.
She even has her own brand, Consistent Habits, where she sells merchandise and a story to young people about working hard for success. And after four years in the A-10, Harbison decided she wanted more opportunities: at a Power Five school.
Coach Ralph said her recruitment was seamless, and Harbison explained she came to Nashville because the program felt like a family and its proximity to home. Harbison said that on her visit they used the word, “elite,” and that their goals were big.
“It was a dream come true because I knew I was capable or able to get the exposure I didn’t get in high school, honestly, from Power Fives,” Harbison told The Next. “Coming here and doing what I’m doing, it’s just a dream come true.”
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At Vanderbilt, Harbison has been key on many levels. She’s the core of the team’s offense, and Ralph calls her the “motor.” According to teammate and fellow fifth-year transfer Marnelle Garraud, Harbison brings a sense of experienced leadership that is vital to the team.
And although her leadership and energy are foundational to this Vanderbilt squad, Garraud says she’s definitely not the loudest on the court.
“She’s not the most vocal, most spoken person, but just like her game, she’s the most effective … whether that’s on the court, or whether that’s with her words,” Guarraud told The Next. “She’s not one to talk about herself, but she’s the loudest when it comes to supporting her teammates.”
And although Harbison statistically rules the SEC, her team does not. Vanderbilt sits in 12th place in the conference with a 3-12 SEC record.
The team has been flush with injuries, losing three of last year’s starters to season-ending injuries and more throughout the season. Their losing record has come as a surprise to the team. Ralph told The Next she expected them to make the NCAA tournament.
But in the absence of other players, Harbison has stepped up and filled the gap.
“Credit to Ciaja in that it was not exactly what we thought it was going to look like, but she still embraced and flourished and trusted and has completely grown and blossomed as a basketball player and a young woman,” Ralph said.
Maybe the best example of Harbison’s mentality to step up for her team in times of adversity is in their Jan. 29 win against Texas A&M. Going into the game, the Commodores did not have a single conference win, and Harbison said all she could think going into the matchup was “we really need this win.” She helped make sure they did just that, tying a program record and setting a career-best with 41 points in the 88-79 win.
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And whether it’s been because of Vanderbilt’s injuries or not, Harbison has proved that an A-10 player can handle the SEC.
“We had added Ciaja and Marnelle and no one else knew who they were but we did,” Ralph said. “If you take a player even at Ciaja’s caliber from the A-10, the first thing people are going to say is, ‘Is she going to be able to do it at this level?’”
Onlookers mark much of this up to Harbison’s intuitive character. It’s more than just talent. It’s her undying belief and confidence in herself that makes her a great player.
“I knew I could do it. Like, it really wasn’t a big surprise. The same motivation I had at Saint Louis I brought here,” Harbison said. “So I feel like the experience I had at SLU really helped me here to just having that instinct of staying aggressive, scoring the ball when I need to, especially doing whatever I need to help the team win.”
Harbison’s story is only one of the modern NCAA athlete. A player with no Power 5 looks who spent four years at a mid-major creating her own brand, transferring, and taking advantage of a “COVID year.” And she cites this opportunity to play in the SEC as a stepping stone to fulfill more of her dreams professionally.
“Since I was a little girl [my dream] has been playing in the WNBA, so I definitely want to get an opportunity,” Harbison said. “You know the numbers, there’s very very few spots in the WNBA, but I’m really pushing for one of those spots.”
Ralph says that she and her staff work with their student-athletes to get them to the professional level, but as Harbison mentioned, in an ever-competitive WNBA, this will be an uphill battle. Harbison says she is unsure if she wants to play professionally overseas if the W is not an option.
And although Harbison’s story shows us modern redemption, the upcoming draft and cut throat training camp season will further prove the modern landscape of women’s basketball.
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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.
I taught Ciaja in one of my classes at Saint Louis University. She was a terrific student with a great attitude toward learning and achievement. I watched her develop on the court as well. I hope she makes it to the next level, the WNBA.