Heading into the Atlantic 10 Tournament, hopes and expectations were high for a senior-laden women’s basketball squad that went 7-0 in February and had just clinched its third-consecutive regular season title.
To no one’s surprise, disappointment was etched across the players’ faces following a heart-breaking 62-58 loss to the No. 7 seed Duquesne that abruptly ended the No. 2 seeded Colonials’ season.
Despite the defeat, first-year head coach Jennifer Rizzotti spoke with her head held high in the postgame press conference, optimistic that this was not the end of the road for her resilient squad. In fact, Rizzotti said she envisioned one more run left with her quartet of fourth-years – this time, in the Big Dance.
“I think we’ve had a great season, and we have a great NCAA tournament resume,” Rizzotti said. “Hopefully this one blip on the screen won’t affect us, and I’m glad that I get as much time as possible left with these guys.”
Following Dayton’s victory over Duquesne in the A-10 championship Sunday afternoon, the Flyers now own an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. With Dayton – which likely would have been GW’s toughest competitor for an at-large bid – out of the picture, GW’s hopes for a spot in the tournament seem brighter.
“Seven of the last 10 years we’ve have three teams [play in the tournament], and 14 straight years we’ve had multiple teams get in,” Rizzotti said. “I think we deserve it – I think these guys deserve a chance.”
GW (20-9, 13-3 A-10) would likely be a lock for the tournament if they had not let a few key games slip away in their non-conference slate. The Colonials dropped a close contest to then-No.11 Syracuse to open the Gulf Coast Showcase in November and came up short at home in a valiant comeback against then-No. 14. Stanford in December.
A more concerning loss when it comes to receiving an at-large bid was in early December, when the Colonials dropped an overtime game to local rival American (14-15, 11-7), a Patriot League team. That combined with a first-round exit in the A-10 tournament could spell trouble for any mid-major team like GW.
“We had to figure out some things throughout the preseason with the new coaching change,” Rizzotti said. “That maybe resulted in some losses they wouldn’t have had otherwise.”
Despite the lack of marquee wins, the Colonials have victories over top-50 RPI teams. Their best non-conference win came during the Gulf Coast Showcase over Thanksgiving, when the Colonials blew out Western Kentucky. The Lady Toppers (24-6, 16-2) now have an RPI of 39 and earned the outright Conference-USA regular-season championship after winning 20 of their last 21 games.
GW also took to the road in late November and knocked off Villanova (16-13, 11-7), which has an RPI of 54 and plays in the competitive Big East conference.
More recently, the Colonials beat their A-10 co-champions, Dayton, in a suffocating defensive effort at home, although the Flyers’ leading scorer Jenna Burdette did not play in that game.
Injuries did not take kindly to GW, either: If not for a wrist injury to senior center Caira Washington, the Colonials likely would have finished even better than their 13-3 conference record.
When Rizzotti got the opportunity to fill gaps in her schedule, she opted for tough road games to boost the strength of the team’s schedule, which could help GW’s case.
“The season’s a long season, and we went out of our way to schedule tough,” Rizzotti said. “When I got the job there were a few openings – I scheduled at Georgetown, at South Dakota State, just to prepare them for the rigors of the A-10.”
Although both Georgetown and South Dakota State were both close road losses, all in all, the Colonials have held their ground throughout a tough schedule, the second-strongest in the A-10 behind only Dayton, according to RealTimeRPI.com. As of now, the Colonials have an RPI of 50, and are 2-3 against top-50 teams.
The squad may also benefit from an unusually weak bubble this year. Each team in the First Four Out of ESPN’s bracketology – Auburn, California, Indiana and Iowa – finished with double-digit losses. Auburn (17-14, 7-9), California (19-13, 6-12), and Iowa (17-13, 8-8) all finished .500 or below in conference play.
Rizzotti said her team’s February winning streak speaks for itself.
“I think down the stretch winning seven games in a row in February once we got Caira back, after losing two games without her in the lineup, we proved that we’re a really good basketball team,” Rizzotti said. “One game shouldn’t define it.”
The Colonials will know their fate when the 2017 NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Championship bracket is unveiled Monday, March 13 at 7 p.m. on ESPN.