Last year the women’s basketball team sat in head coach Joe McKeown’s living room awaiting their fate for the remainder of the season. If they were lucky, the team would be heading to their 10th NCAA tournament in 12 years. If they were not, it would be back to the Smith Center for the first round of the Women’s National Invitational Tournament. But head coach Joe McKeown and his team were not so lucky.
“The way things ended last year, it kind of left a bitter taste in our mouth,” McKeown said. “So I think we have something to prove.”
Things ended with a 68-52 loss to the Hokies of Virginia Tech in the second round of the WNIT. The team failed to gain an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament after a 64-67 loss to Xavier knocked them out of the Atlantic 10 tournament in the second round. But it is not to Xavier, Virginia nor any other teams that the Colonials need to prove themselves.
“We have something to prove to ourselves,” senior Lindsey Davidson said.
Last year, the team’s confidence may have been a little shaky. Leading scorer Cathy Joens’ comeback from her ACL injury was taking time. Five team members had never played college ball before and one was used to playing European-style. Two members had to red shirt and the team’s lone senior, Elena Vishniakova, sustained a season-ending ACL injury only six games into conference play.
The team was not in shambles – they won 21 games and finished first in the A-10 conference. But while the talent was there, the team had much adjusting and learning to do. Davidson said the chemistry was nothing like this year and McKeown said his team was overwhelmed in big games against opponents such as Tennessee last year.
“I think that atmosphere overwhelmed them. I don’t think we handled (those games) as well as we could have,” he said speaking of losses to NC State and Tennessee this year and Connecticut two years ago. “But you play in those games and you’re ready.”
Now, McKeown said, the Colonials are ready. Unlike the men’s team, of which most players are playing together for the first time this season, every member of the 2002-03 women’s squad has been here at least one year. Whatever accolades or defeats the team suffered last year, it suffered together, a fact that makes them stronger individually and bonds them as a team, Davidson said.
So while the Colonials still have great individual talent, it is the team they will emphasize this year. When asked what her personal goals this season were, Davidson had trouble thinking on such an individual level.
“I haven’t given (personal goals) much thought because we are so focused on the team this year,” she said. “I’m going to do anything it takes to have the team win. It’s not about the awards, it’s not about the accolades. If you were part of the team and you contributed, that’s what really matters.”
The chemistry stems from the strong senior leadership, namely Davidson, Joens and Erica Lawrence. Davidson equates the feeling of the team to that of her freshman year, when seniors Elise Aguilar, Marlo Egleston and Starr Jefferson led the show.
“My freshman year, we had great senior leadership and it overflowed into everything. We’re starting to do that now and if we keep that intensity, we’ll have an extremely successful year,” she said.
Lawrence and Davidson are the outspoken leaders, telling everyone where to go and what time to do it, McKeown said.
But Joens, a 2002 All-American candidate, is the quintessential on-the-court leader. After sitting out her entire sophomore year rehabilitating an ACL injury, she returned her junior year to lead the team in scoring with 15 points per game last season (fifth in the A-10).
“Cathy Joens is someone who leads by example,” McKeown said. “She isn’t as vocal, but her work ethic speaks for itself and (the younger players) just fall in line with that.”
Joens is lethal from anywhere on the court but causes the greatest damage from the three-point range. She shot more than 40 percent from behind the arc last season, leading the A-10 in that category. One of the premier players in college basketball, Joens will be GW’s mainstay in the back-court as a shooting guard or small forward.
Joens missed the team’s exhibition game last Tuesday, nursing an ankle injury sustained early this fall. McKeown said she could have played and did not seem too worried that his leading scorer would not be ready for the season opener against Howard Nov. 22.
“She had 29 points in a scrimmage the other day … she’s fine,” he joked.
The Colonials’ other All-American candidate, starting center Ugo Oha, is to defense what Joens is to offense. She is a two-time A-10 Defensive Player of the Year and her 86 blocks last season were more than that of eight other A-10 teams combined. But Oha’s presence goes further than her block total. She is an intimidator, someone that people start looking for before they shoot, McKeown said.
“Everyone knows about her. She can block shots but she can make people miss without blocking their shots,” he said. “It’s about how many people she is going to scare.”
This year, Oha has added another element to her game – offense – making her one of the strongest, toughest and most dominant centers in the country. McKeown said Oha worked on getting stronger in the off season so she will not get pushed around off the block.
“We have to make sure we get her the ball and we’ll go from there,” McKeown said.
But these two First Team All-Conference players will not even be the best part of the Colonials’ offense because this year they have a supporting cast.
“Last year, we depended so much on CJ and Ugo, now we have more people involved,” McKeown said. “With more offensive weapons, we’re harder to match up.”
Starting forward Lawrence and shooting guard Davidson have returned to their sophomore-year form and should contribute double figures on a consistent basis. Sophomore starting power forward Anna Montanana has adjusted her European game to college-style ball in what McKeown called a “tremendous preseason.” With her passing ability and a sweet shooting touch, he describes the 6-foot-one Spaniard as “a point guard playing power forward.”
While sophomore Liz Dancause has some ground to make up due to missed practices because of stress fractures, McKeown, paying the forward the ultimate compliment when she showed up in preseason, said, “we thought we had another CJ in our hands.”
Junior Marsheik Witherspoon’s confidence at the point will increase this year after a season of experience under her belt, and classmate Valerie Williams’ contributions inside the paint will provide a double threat next to Oha. The 6-foot-1 junior added 11 points in Tuesday’s exhibition, 13 percent of her total points last season.
With no new players, the team does not need to spend practice time acclimating players to college ball. No one needs to get to know each other. They don’t need to be polite. They hold each other accountable. And that makes them ready for anything, Davidson said.
“We know we have the talent to get (to the tournament) and to do well and to get far. But we need to prove it to ourselves,” she said.