By Zac Ellis
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – On Jan. 4, Vanderbilt women’s basketball dropped an 81-52 loss to Georgia at Memorial Gym. The Commodores fell to 0-2 in SEC play due to an inconsistent performance vs. the Bulldogs, headlined by 28 turnovers.
That loss didn’t sit well with Vanderbilt head coach Stephanie White. Her Dores needed a jolt with a road trip to rival Tennessee on the horizon. After the Georgia game, White issued a challenge to her roster.
“Right before we went to Tennessee, we said, ‘From here on out, we want to be the most improved team in the SEC,’” White said.
Vanderbilt immediately took its coach’s declaration to heart. White’s squad has been a different team over the past month of SEC play, notching a pair of conference wins and pushing several ranked opponents to the brink of upsets. Now the Commodores venture to Georgia on Thursday (6 p.m. CT SEC Network+) hoping for the next step in their maturation process.
“I feel good about our improvement,” White said. “We’re on the right track. That’s what it’s about: Every game, we’ve been able to take steps forward. We’ve certainly had hiccups here and there, but it can’t be about who we’re playing. It’s got to be about how we’re playing.”
Vanderbilt went on to nearly upset No. 7 Tennessee in Knoxville on Jan. 7. The Dores trailed by just three entering the fourth quarter before the Lady Volunteers pulled away for an 86-73 win. One week later, Vanderbilt snagged its first SEC win against Kentucky before fighting hard in a tough loss to No. 10 South Carolina.
The Dores fell 77-75 at Alabama ahead of a home loss to Texas A&M on Jan. 28. Then Vanderbilt earned its second SEC win with a 75-72 victory at Ole Miss. That momentum propelled White and company to a home rematch with Tennessee. Once again, the Dores showed renewed energy and led 49-48 with 6:02 to play following six straight points from freshman Chelsie Hall. But Tennessee seniors Jamie Nared and Mercedes Russell were too much to overcome down the stretch, helping the Lady Vols survive, 74-64.
Afterward, Tennessee coach Holly Warlick couldn’t help but praise Vanderbilt’s development in between the two regular-season meetings.
“Vanderbilt has really, really improved,” Warlick said. “Steph and her staff, they’ve done a great job. I know they’re going to get it done… She’s coaching like the record is flipped, 18-6. She’s in it for these kids, and they believe it. I think they play for her. They don’t play like their record indicates. I think they go out every night expecting to win, and rightfully so. They’ve gotten a lot better since we played them [in Knoxville].”
The Dores have become one of league’s most dangerous offensive teams, ranking sixth in the SEC in scoring (70.2 points per game). Hall ranks second among SEC freshman with 13.3 points per game; against Tennessee she led Vanderbilt in scoring (19), rebounds (six) and assists (five). Plus, White says the Commodores are healthier than they’ve been all season with key players like sophomore forward Kayla Overbeck, and that has paid off in rebounding and other areas.
Those are few reasons why the Commodores are playing better, Overbeck said.
“Why would we play to our record?” Overbeck said. “It’s unlike us, it’s unlike our team. It’s just being able to fight and give everything. One of these games we’re going to win. Form there, it’s just going to keep going up. Why not show each and every team, this is who we are? We’re still going to play the exact same way, the same amount of hustle and the same amount of heart, even if we don’t have the record we hoped we’d have.”
Vanderbilt still has plenty to play for as the SEC schedule wraps up. Seven league teams boast SEC records between 1-9 and 4-6. For the Commodores, that logjam represents an opportunity to improve its conference tournament seeding with six games left in the regular season.
With a bit more consistency, White thinks Vanderbilt could shake up the rest of its SEC schedule.
“If we are disciplined and compete at a high level, we can compete with anybody in the country,” White said. “But that’s where the consistency comes in. You build trust with consistency. You build confidence with consistency. We can’t expect it to just happen on gameday. It has to happen every minute of every practice.”
Zac Ellis is the Writer and Digital Media Editor for Vanderbilt Athletics.