Basketball Preview: Great expectations for women’s team

Big things are expected to emerge from Foggy Bottom this winter.

After reaching the Sweet Sixteen and finishing last season as the 11th ranked team in the nation, the women’s basketball team lost just one player to graduation, creating little turnover in a perennially successful program. Coaches and media unanimously project the No. 14/13 (AP, ESPN/USA Today) Colonials as conference champions.

Head coach Joe McKeown, however, is trying to avoid letting the external buzz set the agenda.

“All these things out there, our kids read them – ranked in the top 10, top 20 – and they believe it because somebody wrote it,” he said. “(That) doesn’t make it true. I’m more concerned about us inside the gym than what’s going on outside.”

The team will be led by senior guards Kim Beck and Sarah-Jo Lawrence, who bring with them valuable experience and a bevy of honors. Beck was an Associated Press Honorable Mention All-American last season, one of three finalists for the Nancy Lieberman Award, an honor given to the top point guard in Division I and enters this year as a member of the A-10 Preseason First Team and Defensive Team for the third straight season. Lawrence was selected to the A-10 Preseason Second Team and helped Team USA win a bronze medal at the William Jones Cup this summer in Taipei. She was also the A-10’s Sixth Man of the Year two seasons ago.

“They bring so much experience and talent,” McKeown said. “I think they’re one of the best backcourts in the country right now.”

Junior Jessica Adair joins Beck on the Atlantic 10 Preseason First Team and should provide a powerful inside presence to balance the team’s strong guard play. The 6-foot-4 forward led the Colonials in rebounds per game last season (7.6) and was second on the team in points per game (12.9).

“Jessica Adair has to be a big-time player,” McKeown said, noting he hoped to see her play on a level similar to star Tennessee forward Candace Parker. “That kind of talent can carry you through an NCAA tournament.”

Adair will be helped inside by her twin sister, 6-foot-3 Jazmine, and senior Whitney Allen, who was named to the A-10 preseason defensive team. Jazmine averaged 15 minutes and 4.9 points off the bench in 28 contests last season, while Allen started 30 of the team’s 32 games and averaged six rebounds.

Forward Ivy Abiona and guard Stefani Monro comprise a sophomore class that played sparingly last season but showed bursts of potential. Abiona tallied 14 blocks in just 140 total minutes and Munro played 11 minutes in a win over San Diego State in last year’s Surf `N Slam Classic title game. Forward Robin Murphy, the team’s third sophomore, will miss the upcoming season after tearing her ACL in late August.

Rounding out the returning players are forwards Jamila Bates and Lora Mitchell and guard Lisa Steele. Bates, a junior, started the opening two games last season, while Mitchell, a senior, has seen sporadic game time but has twice been named the team’s “Unsung Hero” for the year. Redshirt junior Steele has been hampered by injuries since arriving but has a tendency to hit big threes.

The roster also features two newcomers: guard Erica Rivera, the team’s sole freshman, and guard/forward Antelia Parrish, a junior transfer who sat out last season per NCAA regulations. Parrish possesses unusual shooting range for a player of her size, six feet, making her an interesting combination of talents.

“I think she’s going to play,” McKeown said of Parrish. “She’s pretty good. I think by the time we hit January, she’ll be a better player.”

While there is plenty of talent on the roster, injuries have made it difficult to transfer all of it onto the court. Besides Murphy’s injury, nagging injuries to the Adair twins have prevented the duo from enjoying consistent practice time on the court together. Abiona also tore her meniscus but will still play this season.

“That’s a big problem,” McKeown said of all the injuries. “If I can get everybody who’s on scholarship ready to play opening night, then I think by Christmas we can be pretty good.”

But Christmas is a long ways off. Tests will come early and often, with opening road games against Maryland-Baltimore County and Virginia before hosting Kentucky and Rutgers, a serious contender entering the season ranked third nationally after returning all five starters from a team that reached the 2007 national championship game.

In late November, the Colonials will play South Dakota State and Western Kentucky in the GW Thanksgiving Classic. They will then travel to New Orleans a week later to face UNLV and Samford in the Four Points by Sheraton Invitational. In December, No. 11 Texas A&M will come to Smith Center for a rematch of the second round of last season’s NCAA Tournament.

Games against James Madison, Villanova, Loyola Marymount, Pepperdine, Auburn and Brown make up the remainder of a non-conference schedule McKeown calls “brutal.”

“I think the biggest thing is to stay grounded and not look past anything but the next game,” McKeown said. “And that’s easy to say, hard to do.”

But it doesn’t stop the Colonials from having high aspirations: the Final Four. For Lawrence, it’s not out of the question.

“We want to make our mark on GW,” she said. “A bunch of us are leaving this year – we want to be that team that GW remembers. We want to have that (Final Four) banner be our banner that we brought here for GW.”

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