Fourth-year guard Mei-Lyn Bautista and forward Kelsi Mahoney provide stability for a women’s basketball team that returns just five members of last season’s active roster.
The seniors have won two Atlantic 10 Championships followed by NCAA tournament appearances and have played in postseason competition every year they have been in the program. Their experience will be pivotal heading into their final campaign at the Smith Center surrounded by a squad looking to defend its conference championship despite returning just five members of last season’s active roster.
“We want to make sure that they know what they’re doing right and know what they’re doing wrong,” Mahoney said. “Half the battle is knowing what they’re doing wrong so we can fix it. We just want to allow them to play basketball to the best of their ability.”
The two players are the only members who played under former head coach Jonathan Tsipis – who helmed the program from 2012 to 2016 – and the only ones with more than two years of experience in the program under head coach Jennifer Rizzotti.
“Mei and I have been running this offense and been under the leadership of coach Rizzotti for three years,” Mahoney said. “We know the offense in and out, we know the defense in and out and we’re striving to be perfect and get our teammates to feel comfortable.”
Directing a group that includes 10 rostered underclassmen and lacks substantial A-10 experience, Bautista and Mahoney’s consistency on the floor is a “confidence boost” for the team and helps get Rizzotti “through the week,” she said.
“They make players around them better, and that’s the ultimate compliment,” Rizzotti said. “It’s not about how you look or how you score, it’s about how does your team look when you’re on it. And Mei and Kelsi make everybody look better.”
While Bautista got the responsibility of playing heavy minutes immediately as a freshman, stand-out forwards like 2016-graduate and current WNBA player Jonquel Jones and 2017-graduate Caira Washington carried the floor as Mahoney watched on and matured as a player from the bench.
Last season was the first time in their careers Mahoney and Bautista found themselves in the starting lineup together and both players averaged more than 27 minutes on the court.
Their differing paths to prominence mean each senior can offer unique advice to teammates based on their own experiences, Bautista said.
“When it comes to being a leader and giving advice to these younger guys, they can get two sides from it,” Bautista said. “They can get the side that knew what it took to play all four years – and the side that’s, ‘hey, I had to work hard every day on my own hours to make sure I play.’”
For the team’s four freshmen, Bautista and Mahoney’s knowledge and reliability have made the transition into college basketball easier.
“They’re some of the best leaders that I’ve seen,” freshman guard Maddie Loder said. “They work so hard all the time, they never, ever take a play off.”
Sophomore forward Neila Luma – who averaged 26.9 minutes per game on the court as a rookie last season – said she looks up to the duo for their vocal leadership. She said watching the duo play has influenced her growth as a player, and she has especially looked to Mahoney as a mentor as they ran alongside each other in the frontcourt last season.
Rizzotti said the team’s best offense is made up of Luma and Mahoney are together on the court in a five-out lineup.
“Kelsi was one that I really looked up to and seeing her grow throughout three years was just amazing,” Luma said. “To be able to follow in her footsteps would be great to me.”
Mahoney said she and Bautista are “best buds” both on and off the court and their ability to be honest and open with each other on the floor helps them be more effective.
“It’s so great to have someone else to lean on,” Bautista said. “And the fact that our relationship is so strong on and off the floor, we get each other perfectly.”
As the duo heads into their senior season, they shoulder the weight of the defending A-10 Championship team. With one final chance to punch their ticket to the Big Dance, their underclassmen teammates said they have Bautista and Mahoney in mind when they take the court because they want to help the seniors wrap up their careers on a high note.
“We want to get to another NCAA tournament for Mei and Kelsi, that would be the perfect way for us to cap it off for them,” Loder said. “That’s definitely in the back of our minds – it’s what we’re building toward.”