Breakout freshman forward finds fit with women’s basketball

Kelli Prange was the girl with the neon sweatpants.

Recruits can be nervous when visiting a campus and meeting coaches and players, but the 6-foot-4 forward didn’t hold back her attitude and charisma when she visited GW.

“I was just so bubbly and cheerful,” Prange said.

Legwear aside, the brightly clad Prange had already caught the eye of head coach Jonathan Tsipis. He was hooked, admiring her zest both on and off the court.

“Kelli has such a positive personality, and I think in the same way just has an amazing willingness to want to get better,” Tsipis said. “I think that’s one thing, working on her game, whether she’s had a great game or not a great game, she’s always in to watch films, she’s always getting extra shots up.”

Prange has become the third piece of GW’s imposing frontcourt. She is the third-leading scorer and rebounder on the team, after junior Jonquel Jones and sophomore Caira Washington, with 10.1 points and 6.7 rebounds in 19.4 minutes per game. She was named the Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Week for the second time this season after averaging 10.25 points and 6.25 rebounds against Rhode Island and UMass between Jan. 12 and 18.

The chance to stay close to her “small farm town” of Damascus, Md., helped sway Prange to pick GW over her other top choice, Indiana, but she also has a family connection to the school.

Her mother, Cindy Baruch, played basketball for a season at GW before transferring to George Mason to finish out her college career. Baruch was a standout guard who could have played for the WNBA but chose not to pursue a professional career in basketball.

“She would always be in the gym with me, getting extra shots up, teaching me all these guard moves, teaching me to go hard every single day, no matter what,” Prange said.

Prange said her mother always kept “basketball in her life” and led her to play basketball, too. Prange played soccer as a kid, only reluctantly agreeing to play recreational basketball because her mother organized the team.

But her hesitation quickly vanished. By the time Tsipis was scouting Prange as a recruit, she was leading her team to a state championship. In one game, Tsipis got to watch Prange make 14 out of 16 attempts from the field, with her drive and ability “to take advantage of people” on other teams on display, he said.

He also noticed Prange’s ability to step out at the high post and shoot a three, not a defining skill for his other post players, which Prange said was an ability forged from necessity.

“In high school, we didn’t have a point guard, so I would get the rebound and take it all the way for a layup or a trail three,” Prange said.

Prange could pretty much do whatever she wanted in high school, when the tallest person she guarded was 6-feet tall. She averaged 21.4 points and 11.9 rebounds as a senior, towering over her competition, but that changed in college. Prange said she knew she was in for a new challenge when she walked onto the floor of the Smith Center and saw 6-foot-5 forward Jonquel Jones.

Prange then had to shoot over players who could contest her and fight for rebounds. She had to box out against posts like Jones, who, Prange joked, “is 6-foot-5, but with a bun is 6-foot-8.” Jones has taken Prange under her wing, at least when she isn’t giving the rookie trouble with her massive wingspan.

“I’m a sister first and a friend second,” Jones said. “I think I’ve been a little bit of a mentor, especially on the court, helping her see things and helping her understand things before she comes into the games. She’s so set already because she is so mature, but I’ve been there to help her out along the way.”

With Jones and her mother’s experiences to guide her, Prange has poise beyond her years, Tsipis said. It’s fitting, as the rookie seems more grown up in buff and blue than in her old neon sweatpants.

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