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VOL. 44 | NO. 2 | Friday, January 10, 2020

VU women, 11-4, learn to ‘fight and claw and scrap’

By Chip Cirillo

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“It’s such a difference from last year,” says guard Chelsie Hall, center. “It’s so encouraging. I can’t help but smile. It feels amazing. It’s just a huge turnaround.”

-- Photograph Provided

Vanderbilt’s women’s basketball team came out in new gray and black uniforms in their Southeastern Conference opener against Auburn.

That wasn’t the only difference for the Commodores, who are off to an 11-4 start, including a 1-1 mark in the SEC through Sunday, a 68-60 loss to Florida.

Their record is a huge improvement from the last two years when Vanderbilt suffered through the worst two seasons in program history, going 7-23 in 2018-19 and 7-24 in 2017-18.

“I’m extremely excited about the start,” Commodores coach Stephanie White says. “I think certainly for our kids to find ways to win ballgames, to be able to gain confidence in the nonconference – it’s what it’s all about. But now it’s conference play and it’s a new season.”

Vanderbilt was picked to finish last in the preseason SEC media poll. Signs in the Commodores’ lockers remind the players of the 14th-place prediction for motivation.

Five SEC teams are ranked in the Top 25, including No. 4 South Carolina (13-1) and No. 22 Tennessee (11-2).

“I think the SEC is the best conference in the country,” White adds. “There are tremendous coaches, amazing defensive teams, the offensive side of the ball is continuing to grow and you see some of the highest scoring teams in the country. Depth from top to bottom is incredible.”

Defensive energy and intensity have fueled the Commodores’ impressive start. Opponents are averaging 59.4 points per game against Vanderbilt, which went 5-0 in December. The Commodores rank 11th nationally with 44.5 rebounds per game.

“We’re more athletic than we’ve ever been,” White notes. “I also think that we pursue the boards. We have some naturally gifted rebounders, but we also have some players who just go get it. They’re not waiting for the ball to come to them.”

Mariella Fasoula, a 6-foot-5 forward, leads Vanderbilt in rebounding (8.2 per game), scoring (16.1 points per game), blocked shots (18 per game), field goal percentage (56.9%) and minutes (30.7).

“She can score down low,” White says. “She’s certainly someone that we can give the ball to and she can just go to work. But where she’s most improved is her defensive intensity and rebounding.”

Despite being triple-teamed, Fasoula scored the winning basket with 0.4 seconds left in a 76-74 overtime victory over Washington on Dec. 21. A redshirt senior who transferred from Boston College after her sophomore season, Fasoula was named to the preseason All-SEC second team.

Her hometown is Athens, Greece, home of the original Parthenon. A replica of the Parthenon is located across the street (West End Avenue) from Vanderbilt in Centennial Park.

“The one back home isn’t located across (the street) from Starbucks, but (the replica) is really neat,” Fasoula says. “I like it. It’s a good job, not the same, but a good job.

“(The replica) is smaller and ours is on top of a big mountain. It overlooks Athens, so buildings in Athens can’t be built higher than it so it can be viewed from everywhere.”

Fasoula loves the Greek beaches and food, especially fruits and vegetables. Her father, Panagiotis, played for coach Jim Valvano for one season at North Carolina State before moving on to a professional career in Europe. Mariella played high school ball at Lausanne in Memphis.

Autumn Newby, a 6-2 forward who plays with a lot of emotion, is second on the Commodores in rebounding (7.1 rpg).

Vanderbilt lost its second-leading scorer and top 3-point shooter, Brinae Alexander (13.4 ppg, 12 3’s) to a season-ending injury (ruptured Achilles tendon) in a loss to Rutgers on Thanksgiving.

“It’s huge,” White explains. “Brinae was our best all-around player on the floor offensively, defensively, rebounding, her toughness. She’s a dog and we miss that, not having her on the floor.”

Vanderbilt also lost 6-3 backup post player Kyndall Golden to a season-ending knee injury in a win against Furman on Nov. 22. White has been hampered by bad luck with injuries during her four years with the Commodores. Vanderbilt played several games with only six players last season.

Commodores guard Jordyn Cambridge, a sophomore who was a two-time Miss Basketball finalist at Ensworth, is tied for the SEC lead with 3.2 steals per game.

“She’s just a great defender,” White says. “She’s got long arms, she’s got quick hands, she’s got great anticipation skills, she’s locked in. She knows tendencies, she studies the scouting report and she’s got really good natural instincts.” Cambridge has six stitches in her forehead after being injured in a collision during a win over Columbia on Dec. 29. She played with a bandage and a white head wrap against Auburn.

Senior guard LeaLea Carter, a former McDonald’s All-American at Dickson County, is averaging 8.9 points mostly off the bench for the Commodores.

“She’s our most athletic player,” White says. “She’s the player that can get a shot whenever she wants to. You know, she does things that you can’t teach.”

Carter missed the past two games with a knee injury, but is expected to return later in the month. “I hate that she’s had this setback because she’s playing the best basketball of her career, the most confident basketball of her career,” White adds. “But hopefully this will be a short setback and she’ll be ready to go soon.”

Freshman guard Kiara Pearl is out indefinitely with concussion-like symptoms.

Vanderbilt made 26 NCAA Tournament appearances in 28 years before the program started to decline six seasons ago.

White adds her biggest challenge with the Commodores “is getting the swag back.”

“Getting the mentality of every time you step on the floor, you’re expecting to win,” she says.

White coached the Indiana Fever for two seasons before her 2016 arrival at Vanderbilt. She led the Fever to a runner-up finish in the WNBA in 2015. She was the National College Player of the Year at Purdue, where she led the Boilermakers to the NCAA title in 1999.

Vanderbilt finished last in the SEC with a 2-14 league record last year, but it looked nothing like that team in a 77-55 rout of Auburn in the season opener at Memorial Gym. The Commodores led by as much as 35 as they won their SEC opener for the first time since 2014. Vanderbilt seized a 47-18 lead at halftime in what White called “the best half of basketball we’ve played all year.”

Fasoula led the way with 21 points and freshman guard Demi Washington scored a career-high 17 as the Commodores enjoyed their largest SEC winning margin since 2013.

“I wanted to prove some people wrong tonight, so I just went out and was focused,” Washington says.

Guard Chelsie Hall nearly had a triple-double with 13 points, nine assists and seven rebounds. “In the beginning of the season we were picked last, so to go out there and just show them how much we’ve worked these past couple of months, it was just big,” Hall points out. “It’s such a difference from last year. It’s so encouraging. I can’t help but smile. It feels amazing. It’s just a huge turnaround.”

Four Commodores scored in double figures as the team played with high energy all night against Auburn.

“I felt like we came out and made a statement of who we are,” White says. “We’re a team that respects everyone and fears no one. We’re a team that’s going to fight and claw and scrap.”

Auburn coach Terri Williams-Flournoy isn’t surprised by Vanderbilt’s improvement. “I knew before even coming in, I told our team Vandy is a much different team and a much-improved team,” Williams-Flournoy said after the game. “Stephanie has done a great job. They’re a little bit more athletic. They only shot three 3’s tonight, they’re not just a 3-point shooting team.

“They’ve got dribble-drives. Of course, they’ve got (Fasoula) inside, who everybody knows can score, but now she’s got some really quick guards that can really get her the ball and get up and down the floor. They’ve got great inside-outside weapons, no doubt.”

Auburn (6-6, 0-1), which has made it to three of the last four NCAA Tournaments, shot only 28% from the floor against Vanderbilt, including 3 of 23 from 3-point range.

“I thought Vandy’s defense was aggressive,” Williams-Flournoy said. “They really got into our guards and made it hard for them to get open and pushed them far from the 3-point line. But we also shot the ball terrible. We shot too many 3’s. Twenty-three 3’s? That’s not who we are.”

Despite Vanderbilt’s good start, there is plenty of room for improvement.

“We’ve got to be more consistent, we’ve got to take care of the ball, we have to pay attention to details,” White says. “These defensive schemes that we’re going to see are going to force us to do things that we’re uncomfortable with and we’ve got to find ways to get comfortable being uncomfortable.”

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