Women have ’97 blueprint

Seven years ago, the GW women’s basketball team had a lethal inside-outside combination with one of the best centers in the nation and a premier shooting guard, both of whom were seniors. The 1996-97 Colonials also had a Spanish star up front and a mix of veterans and freshmen in the backcourt. This formula led GW to its best season in the program’s history, and seven years later, that same formula is in place.

“You could throw them in, player for player,” GW head coach Joe McKeown said. “With Ugo (Oha) and Cathy (Joens) for Taj (Abraham) and Lisa (Cermignano), there are a lot of similarities.”

As the starting center, Tajama Abraham became the greatest women’s basketball player in GW history. She rewrote the record books, setting school records for points (2,134), blocks (326) and games played (130) while finishing second all-time in rebounds (970). She was also a member of the Kodak All-America First Team in 1997.

For the 2003-04 Colonials, senior Ugo Oha starts at center with the chance to cement her place alongside Abraham as one of GW’s greatest players. She currently ranks 13th all-time in scoring (1,163), eighth in rebounds (569) and third in blocks (254) with a full season left to play.

Lisa Cermignano provided the outside game to complement Abraham down low in ’96-’97. A deadly three-point shooter, Cermignano set the school record for threes made (270) and tied Abraham for most games played. She would also finish fourth all-time in assists (399).

Within range of Cermignano’s three-point record is Cathy Joens, a fifth-year senior and last year’s A-10 Player of the Year. While defenders must honor her outside shot, Joens’ ability to drive past them, especially on the baseline, makes her a tough match-up.

In Abraham and Cermignano’s junior year, the Colonials made the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament. In Oha and Joens’ junior year, GW lost in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. But it’s what Abraham and Cermignano accomplished their senior season that Oha and Joens really want to duplicate. “I remember starting 3-4 (that year) and having a meeting with my seniors,” McKeown said. “And Colleen McCrea, TJ and Lisa said, ‘Coach, don’t worry about a thing. We’re going to go undefeated.’ And we reeled off 23 straight wins.”

That winning streak included going 16-0 in the A-10, after which McKeown let the team shave “16-0” into the back of his head. If they had made the Final Four, he said, they could have shaved the rest off, too.

GW beat Northwestern and Tulane at the Smith Center in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament and, as the five seed, faced top-seeded University of North Carolina next.

Trailing the Tar Heels 46-45 with less than five minutes to play, GW closed the game on a 10-0 run to reach the “Elite Eight” in the school’s biggest victory of all time. They would go on to lose to Notre Dame, falling just short of the Final Four and a bald Coach McKeown.

The ’03-’04 Colonials hope to make a similar run in the tournament, but they will need similar production from the players around their main duo. For the ’96-’97 team, Spaniard Noelia Gomez stepped into a starring role, averaging 17.3 points and seven rebounds per game down low. For the ’03-’04 Colonials, junior Spaniard Anna Monta?ana will have to be a third star, using her versatile game as an added weapon.

In the backcourt, the ’96-’97 team relied on senior Colleen McCrea and freshman Chasity Myers, a pair that combined for 15 points and nine assists per game. This year, senior Marsheik Witherspoon starts at point guard and freshman Amanda LoCascio could share those duties. Whether these two can be as effective as McCrea and Myers will go a long way in determining if this year’s team can be as successful as the ’96-’97 Colonials.

But even if the backcourt isn’t as productive, McKeown said his current team has more depth. While he had only two freshmen in Myers and Marlo Egleston, the current crop of rookies is five deep. There are also veterans who McKeown said must emerge if the team is going to vie for a spot beyond the second round of the tournament.

“I’m looking for somebody to step up,” he said. “Whether it’s Liz Dancause, Val Williams, Michaela Leary or the five freshmen, I’m looking for a spark.”

Dancause, a junior, is a former high school All-American who was hurt most of last year. Williams, a senior, was last season’s A-10 Sixth Player of the Year. And Leary, a transfer from the University of Michigan, is an outside threat who will add experience to the backcourt. While McKeown said he only used seven players in his rotation in ’96-’97, these three women could make the team at least eight-deep.

McKeown said he has learned that teams generally don’t like comparisons. But with all the similarities, it’s hard not to think about what they accomplished seven years ago, and what they could accomplish this year.

“When you have seniors that are your best players, it gives you a chance. So you do dream a little, because when it gets to March, we have the chance to be one of the best teams in the country.”

Whether they can be as good as the ’96-’97 team remains to be seen. o

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