When the women’s basketball team returned to campus over the summer, that was the first thing head coach Jonathan Tsipis mentioned to his players. After a program-record 29 wins last season and Atlantic 10 regular season and tournament championships, the final score of GW’s loss to Gonzaga in the first round of the NCAA tournament was still the thing etched into his memory.
Tsipis’ Colonials still haven’t won an NCAA tournament game, but their goal this year is to make a deep run to the Elite Eight. The memory of that loss is driving the team, one that has broken records and accomplished much, to not be satisfied with their performance until it gets there.
“In the NCAA tournament last year, we had that glimpse and it’s something that we won’t forget,” said graduate student point guard Lauren Chase. “It’s weird because we kind of remember that more than that we won the A-10 Championship, that burning desire to want to go even further this year. So that constant chip on our shoulder is pushing us.”
After clinching the A-10 title last season, the Colonials could revel in their victory for only a moment. The team had clinched a bid, but did not know their seed or opponent. On Selection Monday last March, the team gathered in the Colonials Club in the Smith Center to learn their fate. Selections ticked off, one by one, and the chatter among the cheerleaders and fans became more and more nervous. There was genuine excitement, but some cheers rang off key when the Colonials were announced as a No. 6 seed.
Most bracketology had GW hosting their own game as a No. 4 seed, but with the lower selection, the team had to travel nearly 3,000 miles to Corvallis, Ore. to take on No. 11 seed Gonzaga. The Zags were playing in their own time zone, in a state bordering their own.
The team made no excuses, but the optics of the situation may have been rattling.
“We were expecting to get a higher seeding,” forward Kelli Prange, who was a freshman last year, said. “There were certain things that kind of shook us up, whether it was the time difference or the fact that we stayed an hour and a half away from the gym.”
The Colonials struggled with their shooting from the outset of the game. They out-rebounded Gonzaga in the second half, but never came back. Tsipis and the team went home sooner than expected.
“As a group, 29‒4 and then A-10 regular season and then the tournament championship, most people would say that’s absolutely, completely satisfying,” Tsipis said. “I think our group understands we had an opportunity to play in the NCAA tournament but did not get accomplished what we had set out in the NCAA tournament.”
Most might be satisfied, but the loss stings so freshly for the team in part because of the personnel Tsipis has recruited to GW.
Before the start of that season, which included a 19-game winning streak, Tsipis said that he’d looked for players who were not just stars, but stars that came from teams that won big games in high school. He wanted players who thrived under pressure and, most importantly, hated to lose.
He got them. So even though Tsipis’ team enters the season with a target on its back, the players still feel like they have much to prove.
“I think that just fuels us to know that we can do so much better than that, and I think that’s a part of the team’s nature,” sophomore Bri Cummings said. “We’re not satisfied and we definitely hate, hate losing.”
Still, the team doesn’t always focus on the big-picture goals. Last season showed that even a squad that can rattle off 19 wins in a row and take home championship trophies can still get overwhelmed. So, instead, Cummings said the team’s strategy is to get “2 percent” better every day.
The hope is that that incremental strategy will help the team make a leap in March. After falling short last year, the Colonials want to take more than one step forward this postseason.
It takes three tournament wins to make the Elite Eight. That’s three chances for adversity and surprises, not to mention everything that could happen on the road to getting there in the first place. But for the Colonials, coming off their winningest season ever, each game will be played with the extra motivation of wanting a new final score to talk about.
“I don’t want to be that team that just made it to the tournament,” preseason All-American Jonquel Jones said. “Last year, it hurt. We had very high expectations, and I think for us, the moment got bigger than us in terms of where we were and who we were playing.”