Last year the GW women’s basketball team was small but quick. Senior guards Elisa Aguilar and Marlo Egleston led the team through the Atlantic 10 Conference and into the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
The team was a perfect 15-0 at home. The Colonials overcame a 3-of-23 first-half shooting drought to beat nationally ranked Rutgers University 63-58 at home. They went on a conference tear, winning 20 of their last 22 games to complete their amazing regular season. And then GW stormed to the NCAA Tournament, where coach Joe McKeown extended his undefeated first-round record to 8-0 against UCLA, helped by Egleston’s 23 points.
But the team’s small-and-quick approach was not enough in the second round. After being out-rebounded by 26 against Notre Dame in a 36-point loss, it was clear GW needed to get bigger inside.
This year McKeown, entering his 12th season, brings six new players on board, with the philosophy that size matters. Five tower at six feet or taller, including 6-foot-5 Alexis Darling and 6-foot-4 Ugo Oha. It’s his big idea, something McKeown said has worked for his past tournament teams. He said he hopes to see more of an inside presence than last year.
Last year, we were scraping for every rebound, McKeown said. You know, now, sometimes we’re taking it off the rim. That’s encouraging.
Players said the new cast of giants should help take the burden off of the team’s outside shooters.
It’s a point guard’s dream, said senior Kristeena Alexander, who was averaged 9.5 point per game off the bench last year. I’m like a kid in Toys `R’ Us.
Alexander will run the point on this bigger team, filling in for the graduated Aguilar.
This position isn’t new to me, she said. This isn’t a transition. It’s just another challenge for me, and I’ll step up to plate.
Whatever McKeown tries seems to work. That’s one reason why he has 318 career coaching wins. Going small worked, helping the Colonials to 26 wins last year. With a new formula to work with, players put their trust in him once again this year.
He knows his business, said 6-foot-4 forward Elena Vishniakova, a transfer from the University of Georgia. He knows how to get a team together, how to motivate a team.
Vishniakova is exactly the kind of player McKeown had in mind when he set out on the big idea – she’s strong inside. At Georgia, she was among the Southeastern Conference’s leaders in free-throw percentage (77.5 percent) and in rebounds (6.2 rebounds a game) as a role player for the Lady Bulldog’s 1998-99 Final Four team.
I am really, really ready to play, she said. However, I know that I haven’t played organized basketball for almost two years. So I guess I have to get used to the game.
One snag in the big idea: Coach McKeown said his newcomers might not be ready to play. He said the team has a considerable experience gap right now.
I’m starting to realize we have a lot of inexperience and a lot talent, McKeown said. It’s like trying to get a boat going full throttle and all of a sudden you realize you got to cut back and pull back a little, almost slow down a little bit. We’re just trying to get real good at a couple things, rather than doing a lot of things.
The team’s only returning starters are A-10 Rookie of the Year candidate Erica Lawrence and senior forward Petra Dubovcova, who averaged 12.3 points per game last season. McKeown said both players look terrific and Lawrence is shooting better now that she did last year, when she posted a .516 field-goal percentage.
She don’t play like a sophomore, McKeown said about Lawrence. She’s outstanding right now. She seems to have jumped another hurdle. She’s shooting the ball really well.
But the team lost its best three-point shooter, Cathy Joens, who tore her anterior cruciate ligament at the beginning of the school year. She now watches practice from a stationary bicycle, and McKeown said she’s done for the season.
It’s a shame. She may have been our best player at times, he said. She’s got tremendous talent. She was coming off the bench last year and averaging almost double-figures. In some respects it’ll make her stronger for next year.
GW lost starters Aguilar, Egleston and forward Starr Jefferson to graduation. But the Colonials have five big freshmen and the 11th best recruiting class in the nation, according to the Women’s Basketball News Service. Darling and Uha will play the center position. Valerie Williams and Demetria Tipps will come in as forwards. The fifth freshman, Marsheik Witherspoon, is a quick guard who battles hard against Alexander at every practice.
McKeown said it’s been tough for Witherspoon coming onto the team as a guard.
It’s like coming in as a rookie quarterback in the National Football League, he said. You just have to make so many decisions, you get blind-sided.
Lindsey Davidson, who played in 30 games last season, summed up the big idea:
The way a guard has to look at it is if you have a big team, the ball’s going to go inside. But as soon as an opponent’s focused on shutting down the inside, that’s when the guard’s can take advantage. That’s how guards and big players have to work off each other. And that’s the whole idea of a team.