Tough nonconference schedule pays off for women’s basketball in A-10 play

Media Credit: File Photo by Olivia Anderson | Photo Editor

Head coach Jennifer Rizzotti said the team’s early-season losses were part of her game plan to compete against difficult competition in nonconference play.

Women’s basketball won just two games in the first half of the 2018-19 season. But now after nine conference games, GW has found itself in the top half of the Atlantic 10 standings.

Even as women’s basketball started the season winning two of its first 10 nonconference games, head coach Jennifer Rizzotti insisted that tough losses were part of her game plan to prepare the team to face off against conference competition. Now halfway through conference play, Rizzotti’s gamble has begun to pay dividends.

The Colonials responded with a 6–3 record in January, quadrupling their win total and bringing GW’s overall record on the season to 8–14. Players said the difficult nonconference schedule prepared them mentally and physically for A-10 play, and the Colonials have been a tough team to beat because they are working together as a unit.

Senior guard Mei-Lyn Bautista said her team’s return to success “started with confidence” in both the team’s abilities and in the coaching staff.

“The nonconference schedule was really tough for us and then it got to a point where everyone on the team was like, ‘How are we going to come out of this hole?’” Bautista said. “But we stuck to it, we’re invested, we’re going to do what the staff wants, coach has our back 1,000 percent and we told her that we’re going to have hers, too – and that just shows now.”

The Colonials kicked off conference play with a 12-point loss on their own turf to Fordham on Jan. 5 in which they scored just 38 points. But after the shaky start, the team responded with a stretch of five wins over the next six games, including victories over VCU, Dayton and Duquesne – all teams that were picked to finish in the top half of the A-10 in the league’s preseason poll.

Part of the Colonials’ resurgence has come from the uptick in offensive production by the team’s backcourt. After a nine-game stretch in which Bautista shot a combined 16-for-67, she found her stride in back-to-back wins over VCU and Duquesne in which she scored a combined 41 points and knocked down 12 three-pointers.

Bautista’s 2.2 steals per games places her second in conference standings while ranking third with 4.0 assists per game. Her strong defensive efforts have helped to anchor an elite Colonials defense that has won games even despite offensive struggles that have persisted through the entire season.

“I take big pride in that a lot of players take plays off on defense or take possessions off where they don’t have to give as much, but my favorite thing is bringing that energy so that my team feels the same way,” Bautista said.

Even considering the team’s wins over some of the conference’s top teams, women’s basketball has struggled to maintain consistency and put together 40 minutes of basketball.

“We don’t really have one consistent offensive player,” Rizzotti said after the game against Saint Louis Sunday. “We need everybody to get a little more consistent but also find ways to make sure that we have, whether it’s inside or outside, we have a little bit better balance.”

GW led by as many as 24 points late in the third quarter against Duquesne before escaping with a one-point victory after allowing the Dukes to rack up 25 points in the final 10 minutes of play. The Colonials were blown out by Davidson 62–42 in front of a Smith Center crowd Thursday and slipped up in a 16-point loss against Saint Louis on the road Sunday.

“Now it’s a hump, where we have to ask ourselves, ‘How do we play all 40 minutes, how do we want it more than the other team every single game and not just every other game?’” Bautista said.

Emblematic of their inconsistencies is the up-and-down play of sophomore forward Neila Luma, the team’s scoring leader at 10.6 points per game.

But even as Luma racked up 20 points or more in three games, on three other occasions she found herself playing less than 20 minutes because she was not “playing hard enough,” Rizzotti said after the team’s game against Davidson.

While Luma and Bautista have had inconsistencies on the season, freshman guard Maddie Loder has been added to the team’s scoring repertoire since she was thrust into a starting role against Memphis on Jan. 1 as Rizzotti looked to spread the floor with a three-guard lineup.

The 5-feet-11-inch combo guard has grown more confident with her jump shot and with her drives to the rim after struggling with poor shot selection and turnovers early in the season, she said. Loder credited her improvement to guidance from Bautista, who urged her to continue to drive the ball, she said.

“Mei has actually been a big part of figuring out what my role is, who I am as a basketball player,” Loder said. “She pulled me aside and she was like, ‘Keep driving to the basket, that’s what we need you to do, that is what you’re good at.’”

Rizzotti said these scenarios have helped her young roster build confidence that will propel them to wins down the line. Tough recent matches are another test of the team’s ability that will help them moving forward, she said, just as they were tested at the beginning of the season.

“We just want to take one day at a time,” Rizzotti said after the game against Davidson. “I don’t think that today was a step backward, I just think it was eye-opening for our guys to understand how much you can control a game with your effort.”

The Colonials return to action 7 p.m. Wednesday on the road against George Mason.

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