Head coach Jennifer Rizzotti defines her game style simply – you can’t play offense if you don’t have a rock-solid defense.
The Colonials allowed the second-fewest points scored against them in the conference last season and took home the Atlantic 10 Championship despite shooting 38.2 percent from the field, good for 11th in the league.
Women’s basketball’s defense has been a centerpiece for the squad for years, and entering into her third year at the helm, Rizzotti continues to focus on getting stops on the defensive end to ensure success.
“We’re going to have to play off of our defense and off of our transition,” Rizzotti said. “That will allow for easier baskets so that we don’t have to work as hard as we did last year to score.”
In conference play alone, the Colonials were the toughest team to score against, holding opponents to a league-leading 54.1 points per game and 30 percent shooting from beyond the arc last season.
While the team has exhibited defensive excellence, crashing the defensive glass is the weakest link on GW’s protecting front. The Colonials averaged 22.5 defensive rebounds per game last season – the fewest in the conference – but Rizzotti has tabbed redshirt sophomore forwards Sarah Overcash and Olivia Gumbs and freshman center Kayla Mokwuah as players who will be expected to boost that number this season.
“There has been a really big emphasis on our defense and our rebounding from the start,” Rizzotti said. “And we seem to be in a much more advanced place than we were in October of last year.”
The team will hold on to its defensive prowess, but will need to shift its focus to fill holes in its offense without 2018-graduate guard Brianna Cummings.
Cummings led the team in points per game (14.3), minutes per game (34.3) and ranked second in rebounds per game (5.7) while starting in every contest last season. Cummings was able to fight on the floor for solid, mid-range shots and played both off the ball and even ran the floor as the year progressed.
Rizzotti introduced a five-out, quick style of play last year that eventually evolved to best fit Cummings place as an all-around solid athlete, Rizzotti said.
Without Cummings in the mix, the team is not as far along offensively as it was this time last season, Rizzotti said, but the roster carries the pieces it needs to craft a new style on the offensive end.
“We changed our offense a lot to suit Bri’s versatility, we don’t have anybody like her,” Rizzotti said. “Therefore, there is a little bit of dip in terms of getting some of those easy buckets she could provide for us.”
Rizzotti said the team was “very in sync” with each other last season and could rely heavily on their half-court offense, but this year’s squad, which returns just five players who saw game time last season, features new faces that aren’t quite on the same page to execute that style.
This season, the team returns three of its starters in senior guard Mei-Lyn Bautista and fowards senior Kelsi Mahoney and sophomore Neila Luma.
Sophomore forward Chyna Latimer and sophomore guard Lexus Levy will be expected to contribute more off the bench than last season to help make up for the loss of offensive production, Rizzotti said.
But the addition of redshirt sophomore forwards Sarah Overcash and Olivia Gumbs as well as freshman center Kayla Mokwuah gives the team the ability to play a post-oriented offense that was lacking last season with Mahoney and then-senior forward Kelli Prange slotted in a stretch-four position.
Rizzotti said having Overcash, Gumbs and Mokwuah in the low-post gives the team more flexibility to play inside-ball and she will look to take advantage of their height and physicality under the glass.
“I like what I’ve seen so far in that we can play the high-low, we can look for the inside game, but we can also step those guys out and have them be comfortable in the five-out as well,” Rizzotti said.
Mahoney – who led the team in three-point shooting last season – said players in the frontcourt like herself, Luma and Mokwuah can guard the post, but also play on the wing and stretch the floor more than they did last season.
“There’s just a lot of tricks to it,” Mahoney said. “Not a lot of people are used to that nor are they able to defend against it, which is so exciting to play.”
But with the majority of the team’s frontcourt erring on the young side, it is yet to be seen how they will fair on the block.
“For all of us, the key is our defense,” Mahoney said. “There’s going to be some times for any team where your shots aren’t falling. But if you can withstand with your defense and make sure that they’re not outscoring you, it’s going to be key.”