In the biggest game of her three-year career, Ugo Oha played the game of her career. And that performance was enough to carry the GW women’s basketball team to its first Atlantic 10 Tournament title since 1996, sending the Colonials back to the NCAA Tournament after a one-year hiatus.
The Colonials defeated Rhode Island 56-49 before a raucous crowd of more than 1,300 at the Smith Center Monday in a tight contest that saw GW struggle offensively. Oha was their only weapon, posting a career-high 26 points to go along with eight rebounds and eight blocks.
“We work too hard to lose,” the junior center said. “Throughout the game my motivation was the seniors. Four years they’ve been here, and no cigar. I think that’s what helped us to win, that fire.”
The fire inside Oha was evident on two huge plays that led to the victory.
With GW clinging to a 44-42 lead midway through the second half, the Rams’ Denise King drove through the lane and attempted a lay up. But just as the ball left her hand, Oha stuffed it straight back at King, who fell to the floor. The ball landed on King and fell out of bounds, giving GW possession as Oha let out an emphatic scream.
“That was a momentum change right there,” said Oha, whose eight rejections set a tournament championship game record. “That block just came from the soul. I think it got our team pumped up and the crowd, too.”
As the clock crept into the closing minutes, GW still had a slight edge at 50-47. Rhode Island had never managed to tie the game, but the Colonials could not distance themselves from the Rams. After Cathy Joens and Anna Montanana missed lay-ups that could have given GW a two-possession lead, Marsheik Witherspoon in-bounded from under the Colonials basket with 1:20 left.
The junior guard found Oha creeping into the lane, and the center went up quickly with a five-footer off the glass. She got the basket and a foul, and the Smith Center erupted as GW took a 52-47 lead.
“I think that play sealed the game for us,” Oha said. “I’m just glad my teammate found me.”
The A-10 crown means an automatic berth for GW into the NCAA tournament, a dance the Colonials were not invited to last year.
“We went 15-1 last year and then didn’t finish the job,” GW head coach Joe McKeown said, referring to their quarterfinal loss to Xavier. “We then paid a hefty price when we were left out of the NCAA tournament. I didn’t think our players were going to leave it up to chance (this year).”
The game was closer, however, than most thought it would be. For one thing, GW had humiliated Rhode Island 90-38 at the Smith Center in January. GW also entered the game having won 19 of its last 20, while leading the A-10 in scoring at 73 points per game. The Rams, meanwhile, finished second to last in points per game for the conference.
Just getting to the championship game was a surprise for Rhode Island. Playing on their home floor as the East No. 5 seed in the first three rounds, the Rams beat Dayton to open the tournament, then upset East No. 1 St. Joseph’s and West No. 2 Xavier to get to the finals.
Riding their hot streak, Rhode Island started the game well, jumping out to a 14-6 lead. But a quick 10-0 run by GW put the Colonials back on top. The teams traded baskets and the lead over the remainder of the half, with GW struggling mightily from the floor.
The Colonials, who are eighth in the nation in field goal percentage, shot only 37 percent in the first half. They relied mainly on free throws, scoring seven of their last nine points of the half from the line. GW entered the locker room with a 32-28 lead.
A-10 Player of the Year Cathy Joens had only five points at halftime on 2-of-6 shooting. Rhode Island was pressuring the ball heavily on the perimeter and leaving only one person in the lane.
While this strategy helped the Rams shut down every player on the Colonials, it allowed Oha to dominate. Joens only attempted one more shot in the second half and finished the game with eight points. Anna Montanana, who along with Oha was named to the All-Tournament Team, had nine points on 3-of-10 shooting. As a team, GW only attempted five shots from beyond the arc, a far cry from the 27 three-pointers they shot in the first two games of the tournament.
With its offense struggling, Oha said the team focused on defense in the second half, trying to just “get a stop, get a stop, get a stop.” The Colonials got plenty of stops, holding Rhode Island to 33 percent shooting in the second half.
Oha was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, and McKeown said sarcastically, “Ugo is not bad for a second team all-conference player.”
McKeown said the entire team was motivated by the fact that she was left off the first team.
“Here’s an all-American candidate, and I thought it was a slap in the face to us, a lack of respect,” he said.
When the final horn sounded, Oha and her teammates mobbed each other at center court. They were followed by the GW student section, which ran onto the court to celebrate with the players before they cut down the nets.
“Tonight’s crowd was phenomenal,” McKeown said. “You hope that’s something that will carry over to next year.”
The women will find out their seed Sunday, as well as their first-round opponent and location in the tournament, which begins March 22. McKeown said that break will give his team time to enjoy its victory.
“It has been a while (since we won the A-10 tournament) and it’s been a monkey on our back,” he said. “I’m just happy for our kids.”