Women’s basketball head coach Jonathan Tsipis came to a losing GW team two years ago, stepping in to turn the program around. Now, in his sophomore season, the team has rediscovered its winning potential after struggling for half a decade.
The Colonials start Atlantic 10 Championship play on Friday in the quarterfinals, after earning a double bye in the tournament with a four seed. GW finished the season with an upset over regular-season champion Dayton.
GW, though a contender, isn’t a favorite to take home the A-10 trophy or make the NCAA Tournament, but they could get hot. As forward Megan Nipe said, the team can “beat anyone in this conference.”
Nipe and fellow graduate student Danni Jackson provide senior leadership for GW. The goofy pair poke fun at each other after games, but they take the prospect of winning a championship very seriously.
None of GW’s active players have experienced a winning season with the team and the furthest the Colonials have gone in the A-10 tournament in recent years was a quarterfinal loss last year to Dayton. The then-eight-seeded team won a first-round game against No. 9 Richmond to get to the quarters, the first A-10 tournament win for the squad since 2008.
Sixth-year graduate student Brooke Wilson will travel with the team, but is unlikely to play due to an injury. Wilson is the only player on the team who has experienced a winning season with the Colonials, during her freshman year in the 2008-2009 season when the squad went 17-12.
Tsipis said he thinks Nipe will be playing with a chip on her shoulder after not receiving the A-10 Sixth Woman of the Year award.
“I think she’s disappointed. I’ve seen that where it’s manifested itself – hopefully it will take itself out on a couple of the teams were playing on in the postseason,” Tsipis said.
Still, GW leads the A-10 with three players making it onto all-conference team rosters, as announced by the league Tuesday. Caira Washington won Rookie of the Year and, along with Jackson, was named to the third team. Sophomore Jonquel Jones got a spot on the second team.
While GW is adjusting to its new status as a contender, the opponents blocking their way to the title game are mainstay powerhouses.
“I think it’s premature to [say] we’re going to win the championship on Sunday. We talk about we’re going to play well Friday,” Tsipis said. “We’re packing for the whole weekend.”
Barring an upset by the winner of the play-in game between No. 13 Massachusetts and No. 12 George Mason against No. 5 Saint Joseph’s, GW will take on the defending-league champion Hawks in the quarterfinals on Friday at 2:30 p.m.
In either scenario, GW’s quarterfinal opponent will be one they have faced twice during the regular season – having toppled both the Minutewomen and Patriots twice, while splitting games with the Hawks.
“We’re at the point where our kids have at least played in this quarterfinal game after last year, but [need] to understand the turnaround and getting ready,” Tsipis said.
Should they jump that hurdle successfully, the next likely opponent would be the regular season champion Dayton Flyers, who play the winner of No. 8 VCU and No. 9 Richmond in the quarterfinals.
These teams have players seasoned over their college careers to make deep postseason runs – something GW lacks. Tsipis said one of the main challenges for the team will be maintaining focus in that new environment.
“Just be able to go one game at a time, but knowing that you’ve done the things to put yourself in this position to succeed and hopefully with the mindset that we’ll be there all weekend,” Tsipis said.
While players like Nipe and Jackson lend a jovial air to the squad, Tsipis brings experience, with his NCAA championship ring gleaming from his finger during games. After deep postseason runs during his time on the Notre Dame coaching staff, he’ll be a steadying force for the Colonials in Richmond.
Tsipis said that Notre Dame head coach Muffett McGraw has texted him frequently throughout the season and that they’ve each wished each other postseason success recently.
“They’re kind of like us,” Tsipis said. “They’re trying to figure out how to win three games in a row in the next week.”
The Colonials have gone to the most NCAA tournaments in conference history, but Dayton will likely see NCAA Tournament action after A-10’s for the fifth-straight year. It would likely take a conference championship to get the Colonials into the group of 64 teams.
Tsipis will be focusing on keeping his team composed, especially Nipe and Jackson, who he said may be inclined to press.
“I think there is a maturity level with Danni and Meg that at times when they’ve pressed a little bit, it’s a matter of making sure that I’m doing what I need to be doing all the time. Just teaching them and getting through that process,” Tsipis said.
Whether or not nerves get the best of them, GW has the momentum of seven wins in the last nine games in its back pocket.