Last season, junior forward Neila Luma found her game on the court, but this season, she’s expected to find her voice.
Luma was one of the team’s offensive centerpieces as one of three Colonials to appear in all 30 games last season, scoring a team-high 10.4 points per game and pulling 6.1 rebounds off the glass. But now that then-senior guard Mei-Lyn Bautista and forward Kelsi Mahoney have departed, head coach Jennifer Rizzotti said Luma needs to take on a more vocal leadership role this season, advising the team as an upperclass mentor for players on and off the court.
“She’s continued to improve on really starting to think about how other people fit into the equation and how she needs to include them in her level of competitiveness,” Rizzotti said.
Rizzotti said Luma is poised to fill the void as the returning starter with the most minutes under her belt. She said Luma doesn’t let the expectation to help fill the leadership roles left by Bautista and Mahoney pressure her, instead using their departures as motivation to improve.
“We’re certainly expecting her to take a big ownership role in our team’s success this year, seeing as she has by far the most minutes of anybody in the GW uniform returning,” Rizzotti said.
Luma led the team in points per game and was the only Colonial to attempt more than 300 field goals, connecting on .390 of them.
She became a defensive cornerstone for Rizzotti’s system, grabbing 24 steals over the course of the season, the second most on the squad. She also blocked 15 shots, good for third on the squad.
Rizzotti said Luma, who is rostered as a forward, can guard every position and plays a large role in setting the aggressive pace on the defensive press. But Rizzotti added that she wants Luma to also use her voice more frequently on the court to lead the squad.
“I think she’s really embracing that role and getting more and more comfortable with it every day,” she said.
Without a four-year senior at GW, Rizzotti said Luma has taken on an active role in practice and helped the team’s two freshmen adjust to collegiate basketball. The team added freshman forward Faith Blethen and freshman guard Essence Brown and a pair of graduate transfers, guard Ariel Stephenson and forward Alexandra Maund.
“I’ve been able to noticeably hear her be more vocal and more positive with some of the young guys, and she’s somebody that they can turn to and she’s somebody that they look to as an example,” Rizzotti said.
Luma said she’s transitioned into the challenging role of becoming a vocal leader well and has used her experiences from her freshman and sophomore seasons to help the new players on the team adjust to Rizzotti’s expectations and the pace of the Atlantic 10.
“I’ve been using my voice a lot and I’ve been using my experience playing for coach to let other players know what the expectation is, what it’s like to play in this league, what it’s like to play for coach and just using my knowledge of the game,” Luma said.
Luma said her teammates’ energy and positive attitudes have helped the squad remain malleable to different offensive and defensive expectations.
“Other players, they’ve stepped in by bringing in energy every day,” Luma said. “That’s something that we need. We need motivation, helping our teammates out, just overall being inclusive to members of the program.”
Sophomore center Kayla Mokwuah said Luma has always led by example rather than speech, and the hard work and grit she brings to the court is noticeable to her teammates.
“She’s always been a leader by example because she’s so quick, she gives the most effort and she’ll always do that, and she’s definitely continued to do that this year,” Mokwuah said. “She’s worked on expanding her game, and I think she’s grown a lot over the last year.”
While Luma continues to make waves on the court, Mokwuah said she makes sure to solidify and nurture relationships with her teammates off the court. She added that Luma is one of her “best friends” and the underclassmen’s go-to for advice on basketball or off-the-court matters.
“She’s kind of like the mom of the group,” Mokwuah said. “I think she takes a lot of responsibility when it comes to team dynamics. So I think a lot of the girls go to her as the upperclassmen if they need guidance.”