‘Synonymous with success’: How A-10 coaches size up women’s basketball

Media Credit: File Photo by Donna Armstrong | Contributing Photo Editor

Other Atlantic 10 coaches said head coach Jennifer Rizzotti's reputation of success at the coaching level and her championship "pedigree" as a player have helped her continue the tradition of winning at GW.

Teams spend hours studying film, scouting players and sizing up opponents before game day rolls around. Conference play for women’s basketball may not begin for months, but in the Atlantic 10, the competition’s eyes are turning toward GW.

A-10 coaches said head coach Jennifer Rizzotti’s reputation of success at the coaching level and championship “pedigree” as a player at UConn have helped her set the tone at GW to continue its tradition of winning.

Before Rizzotti took over the program, the Colonials were thriving under head coach Jonathan Tsipis, who led the Colonials for four seasons. In Tsipis’ final two years, the Colonials went a combined 55–11, culminating with a conference title and an appearance in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

Rizzotti got off to a hot start during her first season in 2016-17, when the Colonials came away with the regular season crown, before being knocked out of the A-10 Championship in the quarterfinal. The head coach returned for her second season ready for redemption and clinched the A-10 Championship title to score a spot in the NCAA Tournament, an achievement she credited to the “tradition” of winning she inherited in Foggy Bottom.

“GW’s women’s basketball team is probably one of the most disciplined teams in the conference,” Rhode Island head coach Daynia La-Force said. “For coach Rizzotti to recently get to GW and win a championship, I think is more of a testament to the players and their willingness to buy in and be disciplined.”

The team jumped in preseason poll rankings this year, coming in tied with Fordham for third after being picked fourth and sixth in previous years, a slight dip from the first- and second-place picks it received in the 2015-16 and 2014-15 seasons, respectively.

GW has won three A-10 Championships in the last four years and seven in program history to lead the A-10 in championship titles. The program with the next highest number of tournament wins is Saint Joseph’s with three.

Coaches around the league said GW’s relentless defense and its versatile, speedy offense is a reflection of the work put in by Rizzotti to get players to buy into her system and trust her as their leader. Others said the Colonials embody discipline and consistency, which feeds into their success.

“I’m glad that they feel that way about us because we feel the same way about our opponents,” Rizzotti said. “It forces me to implement that level of discipline and that expectation that we’re going to be a hard team to play against.”

La-Force said Rhode Island’s game against GW last season was one of the better matches of the year because the Colonials competed at a high level of play for the full 40 minutes.

“GW always demands that you play at a high level,” La-Force said. “If you’re a team that can bring that to the game, it’s definitely going to call for a good game.”

Rizzotti is one of six coaches with three or fewer years of experience leading in the A-10, but leaders at other programs called Rizzotti’s impact in a short time period impressive.

George Mason head coach Nyla Milleson, who enters her sixth season helming the program, said GW’s physicality paired with a defense that will “take advantage of every mistake” has historically made the Colonials a tough matchup for the Patriots.

“She definitely has shown that in a short time that you can put your stamp on a very good program and continue to make it grow,” Milleson said.

Fordham head coach Stephanie Gaitley – who has spent a combined 23 seasons coaching in the A-10 – called GW’s program “synonymous with success.”

“You always feel like they’re going to be in the mix, always hanging around to make a play for the title,” Gaitley said.

Fordham tied GW for third place in the conference preseason poll and will kick off its conference play against GW – a match Gaitley said she anticipates being decided in the final five minutes because both teams are vying for the same conference standing.

While Gaitley said the team is fundamentally sound across the board, senior guard Mei-Lyn Bautista has shown up on her radar as the team’s “unsung hero.”

“What I like about her is her fire and her leadership,” Gaitley said. “I think she’s a great extension of Jen.”

Saint Louis head coach Lisa Stone said Bautista is like a “mini coach” on the floor and the team’s backbone.

“When you have your toughest kid as your point guard, good things are going to happen,” Stone said. “She’s their leader and they’re going to go as far as that girl will lead them.”

Even with GW coming in as the defending A-10 champions, coaches were hesitant to call the Colonials the team to beat because for many, they see the A-10 as competitive enough that it’s anyone’s game.

Stone said this season’s squad, new faces and all, “hands down” should be able to keep up the same level of success as years past because of Rizzotti’s leadership.

“They’re going to play to win every game and that comes from their coach,” Stone said. “She’s a winner.”

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