After a loss to Duquesne Jan. 29 – women’s basketball’s second-straight defeat and second slip-up at home all year – head coach Jennifer Rizzotti was able to make a lineup tweak for the following game that no opponent had seen yet this season.
Rizzotti opted for a three-guard lineup with sophomore Mei-Lyn Bautista and seniors Shannon Cranshaw and Hannah Schaible in the backcourt, and paired together her two 1000-point, 1000-rebound athletes, graduate student Lexi Martins and senior Caira Washington – back from injury – in the frontcourt.
With Bautista running the show alongside the four veterans in the starting five, GW (19-8, 12-3 A-10) has yet to lose a game and is currently riding a season-best six-game winning streak.
There’s a sense of urgency that seniors play with that the rest of the team doesn’t quite get.
“It’s never something that you know at the beginning of the year in terms of lineups. I think at this point of the season it’s key to have the veteran leadership investment,” Rizzotti said. “There’s a sense of urgency that seniors play with that the rest of the team doesn’t quite get. So to have all four seniors out there together, it allows me to take a deep breath. They understand what they’re playing for.”
Led by four soon-to-be-graduates, GW has caught fire at just the right time, with just one regular season game remaining before the Atlantic 10 Women’s Basketball Championship, held in Richmond March 3-5.
On Saturday, the Colonials recognized Martins, Cranshaw, Washington and Schaible in the annual Senior Day celebration prior to the Revolutionary Rivalry rematch with cross-town rival George Mason. GW’s marked improvement was apparent in their blowout 80-49 victory over the Patriots, who took the Colonials to overtime just a month ago.
The Colonials, perfect in the month of February, are thriving under Rizzotti. A former player of the year and 1995 national champion at UConn, Rizzotti has preached the same standard of perfection to her team that her former coach Geno Auriemma expects of his Huskies, who won their record-setting 100th consecutive game last week.
“They hear the stories sometimes,” Rizzotti said. “The other day, when we weren’t practicing too well, I told them about Geno’s ‘no days off’ mindset – that you want to give everything you have no matter if it is a 30-minute practice or a two-hour practice or a two-hour game.”
It is clear that the Colonials have embraced and rallied around their new head coach’s “no days off” mantra. Despite having to adjust to a new offensive scheme, all four graduating student athletes are having career years in their final season donning buff and blue.
Only the second Colonial ever with 1,000 points (1,494) and 1,000 rebounds (1,037) in her career, center Caira Washington has made an impressive comeback from a mid-season wrist injury that sidelined her for four games. In her first four games back in the lineup, Washington averaged 16.8 points and 7.8 rebounds despite playing at less than 100 percent health.
The two-time All-Conference first-teamer’s biggest impact has come on the defensive end, however, where she averages 2.2 blocks and 1.3 steals per game. With Washington back in the starting lineup, the Colonials are limiting opponents to an average of 50 points and 33 percent shooting from the field. Over the last 21 quarters, the Colonials have trailed for only 2:47.
But the biggest surprise for GW this season has been the breakout of Washington’s new partner-in-crime, Lexi Martins. The graduate transfer from Lehigh leads the team in scoring and rebounding in her first and only year as a Colonial.
In league play, Martins is averaging 16.3 points and 8.7 boards in just 26.7 minutes; her scoring ranks third amongst all Atlantic 10 players. She also has five 20-point games in A-10 play and posted six-consecutive double-doubles during the month of January. With Washington routinely facing double teams, Martins has capitalized on extra touches in the post.
“There’s a huge sense of urgency and you just want to go out there and enjoy yourself and do the best that you can because this is my last time getting to play,” Martins said.
Rizzotti has made Martins’ and Washington’s paint dominance possible by inserting shooting guard Shannon Cranshaw into the starting lineup after the loss to Duquesne. The Ormond Beach, Fla. native is shooting a career-best 35.2 percent from beyond the arc, which ranks eighth in the A-10, and has hit multiple three-pointers in 13 games this season.
“The fact that [Cranshaw] is out there spreading out the defense really helps open it up inside,” Rizzotti said. “Sometimes just her being a shooter makes it easier for us to score inside because they’re so worried about guarding her.”
We are playing for a championship. But we are also playing to be in a great position physically and mentally when we enter the A-10 Tournament.
Then there is the team’s silent assassin, senior guard Hannah Schaible, who ranks first in the conference with 2.6 steals per game and ranks tied for 31st nationally in total steals (69).
She may not be the focal point of the opposing team’s defensive game plan, but her ability to consistently generate takeaways and score in transition has been deadly over the six-game stretch. Behind a unified defensive effort, the Colonials have poured in an average of 22 points off of turnovers while allowing just 6.2 points to opponents per game over the span.
Under a standard of perfection, Rizzotti said she and her four fourth-years hope to achieve what has been done only twice before in league history – complete a three-peat in the A-10 Tournament.
“We are playing for a championship,” Rizzotti said. “But we are also playing to be in a great position physically and mentally when we enter the A-10 Tournament. You do that with mental and physical preparation, taking care of your body, watching film and then coming to practice everyday with a championship mindset.”