Vanderbilt hires Shea Ralph from UConn as new women’s coach

David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Vanderbilt has hired Shea Ralph away from UConn to help revive the Commodores’ struggling women’s basketball program, which hasn’t reached the NCAA Tournament since 2014.

Athletic director Candice Lee announced the hiring a week after firing Stephanie White following five seasons. Ralph will be introduced at a news conference Wednesday.

“Coach Ralph has earned the opportunity to take the reins of our women’s basketball program and transform it into what we all know is possible,” Lee said. “She knows what winning looks like, and she has the background and experience, as both a player and a coach, to develop our student-athletes into champions.”

Ralph has been an assistant with the Huskies since 2008, and she helped lead UConn to 13 consecutive Final Fours and six NCAA championships. She aided in recruiting and player development. She spent five seasons as an assistant coach at Pittsburgh, which won at least 22 games in each of her last three seasons.

She said she’s always been motivated and inspired by people passionately pursuing excellence.

“Vanderbilt’s rich, storied tradition of excellence speaks for itself, but I believe what sets us apart is the people,” Ralph said. “I am so excited to work alongside our amazing community in elevating our women’s basketball program back to an elite level.”

Ralph, who graduated from Connecticut in 2001, was captain of the Huskies’ 2000 national championship team and was named MVP of that Final Four. She also was an All-American and the 2000 Big East Player of the Year.

A knee injury kept her from playing in the WNBA after she was drafted by the Utah Starzz in 2001.

“The West End just got another dose of eastern NC’s finest! Let’s give a big Commodore Welcome to Shea Ralph-Garrick and family!” Vanderbilt men’s coach Jerry Stackhouse wrote on Twitter of the coach who grew up in Fayetteville, North Carolina.

UConn coach Geno Auriemma said Ralph will leave a big void in the Huskies’ program but deserves a shot at what he called a big job.

“Her drive as a student, as a player as a coach, her intensity level in how she played and coached and recruited, those are staples of who Shea is and I know that’s what she will bring to Vanderbilt” he said.

Ralph takes over a program that hasn’t reached the NCAA Tournament in seven years despite a history featuring 26 berths, 15 trips to the Sweet 16, five Elite Eights and a Final Four in 1993.

Vanderbilt opted out of the season in January with a roster thinned because of COVID-19 issues, injuries, one player with myocarditis and another recovering from an ACL injury. Three starters transferred after the season, two of them graduates.

Auriemma said it will take time for Ralph to turn around the program, but he believes she can do it without sacrificing the school’s high academic standards.

“Stanford just won a national championship with that kind of kid that is looking for that kind of experience,” he said. “So those kids are out there. It’s not easy, but they’re out there and Shea knows where to look. She’s been recruiting at that level for a long, long time now.”

Lee, who had the interim tag taken off last May as athletic director, played basketball for Vanderbilt from 1998-2002, when the Commodores made back-to-back Elite Eights.

Vanderbilt recently announced a $300 million project to improve football and basketball facilities and a new Vandy United Fund to raise money for athletics programs. Women’s basketball is slated to get its own dedicated practice court along with improvements to the locker room and offices.

Kentucky’s Tionna Herron recovering from open-heart surgery

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky coach Kyra Elzy says freshman Tionna Herron is recovering from open-heart surgery to correct a structural abnormality.

The 6-foot-4 post player learned of her condition after arriving at school in June and received other opinions before surgery was recommended. Senior trainer Courtney Jones said in a release that Herron underwent surgery Aug. 24 at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston and is recovering at home in DeSoto, Texas.

Elzy said Herron “is the definition of a warrior” and all are grateful to be on the other side of the player’s surgery. Herron is expected back on campus early next month and will continue rehabilitation until she’s cleared to return to normal activity.

“Her will and determination to eventually return to the court is inspiring, and it’s that `game-on’ attitude that is what makes her such a perfect fit in our program,” Elzy said in a release. “We are so thrilled for Tionna’s return to our locker room; it’s not the same without our full team together.”

Herron committed to Kentucky during last fall’s early signing period, rated as a four-star prospect and a top-70 player in last year’s class. Kentucky won last year’s Southeastern Conference Tournament and reached the NCAA Tournament’s first round.

Emoni Bates charged with 2 felonies

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SUPERIOR TOWNSHIP, Mich — Emoni Bates, a former basketball prodigy who transferred to Eastern Michigan from Memphis, was charged with two felonies after police found a gun in a car during a traffic stop.

The 18-year-old Bates failed to stop at an intersection Sunday night and a search turned up the weapon, said Derrick Jackson, a spokesman for the Washtenaw County sheriff’s office.

Defense attorney Steve Haney told The Associated Press that the vehicle and the gun didn’t belong to Bates.

“I hope people can reserve judgment and understand there’s a presumption of innocence,” Haney said. “This was not his vehicle. This was not his gun. … We’re still gathering facts, too.”

Bates was charged with carrying a concealed weapon and altering identification marks on a firearm. He was released after his lawyer entered a not guilty plea. Bates’ next court hearing is Oct. 6.

“This is his first brush with the law,” Haney said in court. “He poses no threat or risk to society.”

Less than a month ago, the 6-foot-9 Bates transferred to Eastern Michigan to play for his hometown Eagles. Bates averaged nearly 10 points a game last season as a freshman at Memphis, where he enrolled after reclassifying to skip a year of high school and join the class of 2021.

“We are aware of a situation involving one of our student athletes,” EMU spokesman Greg Steiner said. “We are working to gather more details and will have further comment when more information is available.”

Bates was the first sophomore to win the Gatorade national player of the year award in high school basketball in 2020, beating out Cade Cunningham and Evan Mobley. Detroit drafted Cunningham No. 1 overall last year, two spots before Cleveland took Mobley in the 2021 NBA draft.

Bates committed to playing for Tom Izzo at Michigan State two years ago, later de-committed and signed with Memphis. Bates played in 18 games for the Tigers, who finished 22-11 under Penny Hardaway. Bates missed much of the season with a back injury before appearing in Memphis’ two NCAA Tournament games.

In 2019, as a high school freshman, the slender and skilled guard led Ypsilanti Lincoln to a state title and was named Michigan’s Division 1 Player of the Year by The Associated Press. His sophomore season was cut short by the pandemic and he attended Ypsi Prep Academy as a junior, his final year of high school.

UConn to pay Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million over firing

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn announced Thursday it has agreed to pay former men’s basketball coach Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million to settle discrimination claims surrounding his 2018 firing.

The money is in addition to the more than $11.1 million in back salary Ollie has already been paid after an arbitrator ruled in January that he was improperly fired under the school’s agreement with its professor’s union.

“I am grateful that we were able to reach agreement,” Ollie said in a statement Thursday. “My time at UConn as a student-athlete and coach is something I will always cherish. I am pleased that this matter is now fully and finally resolved.”

Ollie, a former UConn point guard who guided the Huskies to a 127-79 record and the 2014 national championship in six seasons as head coach, was let go after two losing seasons. UConn also stopped paying him under his contract, citing numerous NCAA violations in terminating the deal.

In 2019, the NCAA placed UConn on probation for two years and Ollie was sanctioned individually for violations, which the NCAA found occurred between 2013 and 2018. Ollie’s attorneys, Jacques Parenteau and William Madsen, accused UConn of making false claims to the NCAA for the purpose of firing Ollie “with cause.”

The school had argued that Ollie’s transgressions were serious and that his individual contract superseded those union protections.

Ollie’s lawyers had argued that white coaches, including Hall-of-Famers Jim Calhoun and women’s coach Geno Auriemma, had also committed NCAA violations, without being fired, and indicated they were planning to file a federal civil rights lawsuit.

The school and Ollie said in a joint statement Thursday they were settling “to avoid further costly and protracted litigation.”

Both sides declined to comment further.

Ollie, who faced three years of restrictions from the NCAA on becoming a college basketball coach again, is currently coaching for Overtime Elite, a league that prepares top prospects who are not attending college for the pros.

Dream’s McDonald returning to Arizona to coach under Barnes

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TUCSON, Ariz. — Atlanta Dream guard Aari McDonald is returning to Arizona to work under coach Adia Barnes.

The school announced that McDonald will serve as director of recruiting operations while continuing to fulfill her WNBA commitments. She will oversee all recruiting logistics, assist with on-campus visits, manage recruit information and social media content at Arizona.

McDonald was one of the best players in Arizona history after transferring from Washington as a sophomore. She was an All-American and the Pac-12 player of the year in 2020-21, leading the Wildcats to the national championship game, which they lost to Stanford.

McDonald broke Barnes’ single-season scoring record and had the highest career scoring average in school history before being selected by the Dream with the third overall pick of the 2021 WNBA draft.

South Carolina, Staley cancel BYU games over racial incident

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COLUMBIA, S.C. – South Carolina and women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley have canceled a home-and-home series with BYU over a recent racial incident where a Cougars fan yelled slurs at a Duke volleyball player.

The Gamecocks were scheduled to start the season at home against BYU on Nov. 7, then play at the Utah campus during the 2023-24 season.

But Staley cited BYU’s home volleyball match last month as reason for calling off the series.

“As a head coach, my job is to do what’s best for my players and staff,” Staley said in a statement released by South Carolina on Friday. “The incident at BYU has led me to reevaluate our home-and-home, and I don’t feel that this is the right time for us to engage in this series.”

Duke sophomore Rachel Richardson, a Black member of the school’s volleyball team, said she heard racial slurs from the stands during the match.

BYU apologized for the incident and Richardson said the school’s volleyball players reached out to her in support.

South Carolina said it was searching for another home opponent to start the season.

Gamecocks athletic director Ray Tanner spoke with Staley about the series and supported the decision to call off the games.