After setting a program record for the most wins in a season and preparing all year for a shot to play on a national stage, the Colonials cruised to their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2008. But GW’s moment in primetime was short-lived.
On Friday, No. 6 seed GW entered the Gill Coliseum in Corvallis, Ore. as the favorite against No. 11 seed Gonzaga. The Bulldogs were up for the challenge, upsetting the Colonials 82-69 in their eighth straight trip to the Big Dance.
The pain of a season-ending loss was etched on the faces of the players after the game, but it was bittersweet. The unusually skittish performance in the tournament seemed to show just how far into foreign territory the team had progressed.
“I don’t think [the loss] takes anything away from a team that sets the school record with 29 wins and wins three championships,” head coach Jonathan Tsipis said.
At the beginning of the season, Tsipis’ goal to reach the NCAA Tournament seemed achievable, but still ambitious.
The team had performed well in the NIT the year before and was poised to benefit from a full year of eligibility from junior Jonquel Jones and the growth of former Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Year Caira Washington, among other sophomores.
But Tsipis was still down two of his best players from the year before, Megan Nipe and Danni Jackson, and their absences seemed destined to create voids in both statistics and leadership.
By the end of this season, the team had gone on a 19-game win streak, risen to No. 19 in the country in the national rankings and boasted the best rebounding margin in Division I at +13.8. The Colonials waltzed through the A-10 regular season, save a flukey loss to Saint Louis, and won both the regular season title and conference championship to earn an automatic bid, though they were shoe-ins for an at-large selection in any case.
“I can’t even explain it,” senior Chakecia Miller said. “It was a great journey, a great ride for me. Back in my freshman year, I never thought this basketball team could accomplish everything we have.”
There was a slight hiccup in the Colonials’ path to the tournament on selection Monday. After the selection committee projected GW as a potential host in mid-February and bracketologists like ESPN’s Charlie Creme predicted that the team would likely earn a No. 4 seed, the No. 6 seed came as a surprise, as did the cross-country trip.
But at tip-off, the harsh reality of the tournament competition set in. The veteran Gonzaga team jumped out to a 40-25 lead at the half, with GW’s normally staunch defense seeming like it had not made the trip. Gonzaga took 32 of 52 shots in the first half, and the Colonials gave up 16 points off turnovers before the break.
GW showed the same toughness the team had in matches throughout the season in the second half. Jones got into rare early foul trouble with three personal fouls in the first half, but the rest of the team stepped up.
Freshman forward Kelli Prange and sophomore guard Hannah Schaible led the Colonials with 13 points each, and GW owned the paint in the second half. But the deficit from the first was too much to overcome.
“I was really proud of how we came out in the second half. We battled by rebounding the ball like we are capable of and getting out in transition and really was able to climb back into the game,” Tsipis said. “But when you expend that much energy, there is just not a lot of room for error.”
Ultimately, that margin was too slim. Still, it’s telling that the season, which went further in racking up wins than any before it, seemed like it was cut short. The future looks good: The team will return its top four scorers next year. Miller is the only consistent starter who will graduate, and she said that she’ll leave behind high hopes for the team.
“Keep pushing forward, don’t be complacent,” Miller said. “Keep being hungry to get back to where we were, but to go further than where we got this year.”