The GW women’s basketball team is the defending Atlantic 10 champion with two All-American candidates in seniors Ugo Oha and Cathy Joens. And yet, if the past few years are any indication, this talented Colonials team will be playing in front of meager crowds throughout the season.
Last year, despite going 15-1 in conference and winning the A-10 Tournament, the women had an average of 897 spectators at each of their 15 home games. Attendance at the Smith Center totaled just under 13,500 for the season, compared to more than 30,000 for a men’s team that finished well below .500 with a 5-11 conference record.
The primary reason for small crowds, players said, is the difference in styles of play.
“(Fans) like high-flying action,” senior Ugo Oha said, explaining that women’s basketball is a much more “fundamental” game than men’s basketball.
“You won’t see us out there hanging off the rims,” senior Valerie Williams added.
Small crowds have certainly not affected the women’s level of play at home. The Colonials have not lost an A-10 home game since January 10, 1999, against Virginia Tech, including last year’s A-10 Tournament Championship Game, which was played before a crowd of 1,300.
At that game, students remained standing and cheering for most of the second half, as GW pulled out an ugly affair against Rhode Island. When the final horn sounded, the student section rushed the court, prompting GW head coach Joe McKeown to say afterward, “Tonight’s crowd was phenomenal. You hope that’s something that will carry over to next year.”
The Colonials’ best shot to have a similar student crowd this year would have been against the University of Tennessee. But the game is scheduled for Dec. 30, when students will be on winter break.
Just two years ago, Tennessee came to the Smith Center as the second-ranked team in the country. With the contest on national television, over 5,000 fans attended the game, setting a Smith Center record. GW lost, 83-61, but players said the atmosphere was unbelievable.
“It pumps us up to see a big crowd,” senior Marsheik Witherspoon said, referring to the Tennessee game. “(That) crowd was so huge, we couldn’t even hear ourselves on the court.”
When the Smith Center is filled, Williams said, the team has even more motivation.
“We huddle up several times during the game,” she said. “And whenever we have a big crowd we say things like, ‘We have a big crowd. Now let’s get out there and play hard!'”
Other prominent opponents at home this year include Syracuse, Boston College, Oregon and A-10 foe Xavier. But even if the crowds remain small for those games, Williams said the team will not be negatively affected.
“(A big crowd) always helps, but we’re very focused,” she said. “We have a goal and we work toward that goal with all we have.”
Several hundred fans are consistent faces in the Smith Center for women’s games. And the students in the bottom-middle section of the bleachers make plenty of noise. This support, players said, proves that people on campus are not apathetic toward the team.
“We have consistent fans who come, and it feels good to see them at every game,” Williams said. “I don’t think they don’t care.”
“The fans that come to every game are great,” Oha said. “They really get pumped up and we know that we’re playing to a loyal crowd.”
After last year’s run through the A-10 Tournament and into the second round of the NCAA Tournament, the team thinks that loyal following could grow this year.
“We’re playing really well,” Williams said. “I think we’ll have much bigger crowds this season.” o