The day before women’s basketball’s first postseason game in five years, head coach Jonathan Tsipis bumped into men’s head coach Mike Lonergan outside the Smith Center locker rooms, in between the two teams’ practices.
Before their seasons started, most wouldn’t have thought a mid-March encounter possible, as both team’s have only recently achieved surprising success. The women’s team took down East Carolina Wednesday night in the first round of the Women’s NIT, a jump into the postseason that is a testament to the program’s turnaround.
“It’s a great feeling on campus knowing both teams are playing in March,” Tsipis said. “In a school that does not have football, that was kind of a challenge that Patrick [Nero] had for both Mike [Lonergan] and I – being those marquee programs.”
Last year in his first season in Foggy Bottom, Tsipis molded the women’s team from an 11-win team to one sitting just below .500. Now, the team is winning and brimming with young talent and expected to make the postseason for years to come.
Tsipis wanted to bring a rejuvenated women’s basketball team back to the top of the Atlantic 10 conference – a league that received three bids in this year’s big dance and four in the WNIT. The strategy also involved getting the team back to the national stage.
The team showed uneven performances in games against non-conference giants like California and Maryland. The sharp-shooting forward Megan Nipe went off for 31 points in a televised win against the then-No. 10 Golden Bears in November, giving GW a huge upset and an early confidence boost.
But less than a week later, the Colonials got a reality check, taking a tough pounding at Maryland and losing by 36 points. The team then lost three of its next five games.
“When we were eight games in, we talked to the team, saying, this team’s legacy can’t just be, ‘Hey, we beat Cal in the second game of the year,’” Tsipis said.
The message seemed to click. With the addition of sophomore transfer Jonquel Jones – who sat out the first 10 games due to transfer rules – GW would go on to finish 14-3 at home.
Tsipis said he did have a schedule-making regret after the Colonials’ losses to Georgia, Georgetown and Towson led to an rating percentage index of 72. Fellow A-10 leaders Dayton, Saint Joseph’s and Fordham – all of whom are going dancing – had RPIs under 40.
The team also had to overcome significant injuries – most notably a knee injury to Nipe that still has her playing at less than 100 percent.
Still, the Colonials beat three ranked teams this season, and both point guard Danni Jackson and Nipe moved into the GW record books as 1,000 point scorers. Jackson also became the second Colonial to record over 1,000 points and 500 assists.
Jones became a viable threat to score anywhere on the floor and earned second team All-Conference honors. Freshman Caira Washington lived up to the hype and then some, grabbing Rookie of the Year honors. Fellow freshman Hannah Schaible started all but one game this year and four highly touted recruits will come in next season to join the party.
“Last year, it was they hadn’t won in the A-10 Tournament and that was a goal and we were able to do that,” Tsipis said. “This year, it was the first year that group has been able to get a bye and now it was, ‘Hey, we want to keep going. Let’s get to that next point.’”