The 42-point season-ending loss women’s basketball suffered Saturday was by far the team’s worst of the year.
After such defeats, squads typically re-evaluate their strategy, make lineup changes and hang their heads.
But after the game, head coach Jennifer Rizzotti and her players – although disappointed – highlighted their unexpected road to even get the chance to take on Ohio State in the NCAA tournament. The Colonials realized their path from an under-.500 team to a No. 5 seed in the Atlantic 10 tournament to an automatic bid in the NCAAs was an unlikely one.
Ultimately, Rizzotti credited the Buckeyes for simply being the better team and chalked up the loss to GW’s inability to contain two of its opponent’s best offensive players – senior guard Kelsey Mitchell and redshirt senior forward Stephanie Mavunga. The coach, who is in her second year in Foggy Bottom, said the Colonials are still on the rise and that this year’s increased postseason success is not their cap.
“Our team competed with other good teams,” Rizzotti said. “This final score shows how good Ohio State is. Our team is still growing and learning.”
When GW entered the season, the expectation for the team to repeat as regular-season champions were low. The Colonials were slotted to finish sixth in the A-10 by a preseason coaches poll – their lowest projection since 2012 – after the departure of a core of consistent veterans, including A-10 All-Conference First Team member Lexi Martins, All-Conference Second Team member Caira Washington and All-Defensive Team member Hannah Schaible.
Still, players entered the season confident they could continue GW’s recent success. Junior guard Mei-Lyn Bautista said once the team began to mesh, the goal was not only to win a couple games, but to make it back to the Big Dance – after losing in the first round of the WNIT last season.
“With the focus and energy we had we knew we had one goal: to win and get to the NCAA tournament,” Bautista said.
Despite the team’s ambitions, reaching the national level was not a simple task this season. With just a 10-person active roster and a mid-season injury to senior forward Kelli Prange, GW was forced to rely on its young players and secure productivity from unassuming places.
The Colonials lost each of their first two contests of the year and began non-conference play with a tepid 3-7 record through one month of action. The Colonials did not string together three consecutive wins until the first week of February.
“It doesn’t just happen in one weekend. It was certainly a process,” Rizzotti said. “It took a while for them to believe we were good enough to win games like that. Over the course of the schedule we continued to get better, and last week things started to click.”
On the year, GW went 8-8 at the Smith Center – a place that has been a successful sanctuary for Colonials teams in recent years. In Rizzotti’s first year at the helm of the program, the team went 11-3 at home, and GW had not lost more than four home games since the 2011-12 season.
By the time the conference tournament rolled around, the Colonials had churned out six wins in their last eight games and were playing their best basketball. In half of those games, they held their opponents to under 50 points on the contest.
“At our best, it all starts at the defensive end of the floor,” senior guard Brianna Cummings said. “That’s something we pride ourselves on, our ability to stop players but also help each other out. When we are at our best that’s how the game starts off.”
But on the offensive end, Cummings held her own and led the team with an average of 14.3 points per game during her first year as an everyday starter.
The Colonials cruised through the A-10 tournament with a roster that had used the season to learn their roles. Junior forward Kelsi Mahoney became the team’s sharpshooter and Prange established her moderating presence off the bench. GW’s freshmen adapted to more important roles, including the increased reliance on freshman forward Neila Luma as a starter in the frontcourt.
Possibly the clearest example of defined responsibilities was Bautista’s dominance handling the ball during the postseason. She dished out 26 assists and did not turn over the ball once during the conference tournament.
GW won four consecutive games and became the lowest seed to win the A-10 Championship in at least 15 years with a 65–49 win over Saint Joseph’s. The victory gave the Colonials an automatic bid to the NCAAs for the third time in four years – their only shot at reaching the tournament and achieving their goal.
Although members of the program determined the late-year run to be a mark of a successful season, GW went just 19-14 on the season – snapping a four-year streak of winning at least 20 games.
So in order to improve that mark and follow Rizzotti’s belief that the roster is improving, young players – including the Colonials’ two currently ineligible transfers – will need to learn from this roller coaster year and step into bigger spots in the rotation when next season arrives.
“We are definitely proud of ourselves with the improvement that we’ve made this season,” Cummings – one of the team’s four graduating players – said. “We just wanted to make sure we’re leaving everything out there to show the younger guys what it takes to win.”