Women’s basketball navigates season without senior leadership

Media Credit: Dean Whitelaw | Staff Photographer

Playing nearly every game last season, sophomore center Kayla Mokwuah is one of the most experienced players on the women's team this season.

Women’s basketball will be without a four-year senior for the first time in six years.

After guard Mei-Lyn Bautista and forward Kelsi Mahoney graduated, the Colonials must rely on younger leadership for the 2019-20 season. Players said head coach Jennifer Rizzotti expects each and every member of the team to step up and act like a leader.

Graduate student forward Alexandra Maund said Rizzotti wants every player on the team, including the incoming freshmen and graduate students, to lead, whether that is on or off the court, vocally or by example.

“Every day, Riz is saying, ‘Who’s going to step up and be a leader?’” Maund said. “She’s emphasizing that she wants leadership from everybody. It doesn’t have to be the same way, but it has to show up.”

Maund and fellow graduate student guard Ariel Stephenson joined the squad this season. Maund spent three seasons at Yale, where she gradually increased her points and rebounds per game, ending the 2018-19 season averaging 5.8 points and 4.2 rebounds per game.

Stephenson was sidelined her senior year at Wake Forest with a shoulder injury. She was a consistent scorer for the Demon Deacons, averaging 12.7 points as a freshman, 13.1 points as a sophomore and 8.9 points per game in her junior season.

Maund said Rizzotti wanted the pair – as the two most experienced players on the team – to bring and share their older perspectives with the squad.

“She specifically wanted maturity from me and our other graduate Ariel,” Maund said. “She told me that when I came in, so it’s been a challenge that I have accepted and I’m very willing to help with.”

Both Rizzotti and the rest of the team have emphasized a leadership-by-committee approach – keen on not relying on one person to lead the team. Rather than trying to fill the leadership role of three-year floor general Bautista with one person, all of the Colonials are focused on holding one another accountable.

“She was a great leader on our team and someone can’t just step into that position,” sophomore center Kayla Mokwuah said. “I think there are definitely some people who are looking to inherit some of the roles that she had on the court.”

Rizzotti said she has called upon junior guard Neila Luma, Mokwuah, redshirt junior forward Sarah Overcash and sophomore guard Maddie Loder as veteran Colonials who have what it takes to help fill the leadership void left by Bautista’s departure.

Luma tops the returning Colonials in minutes, points per game and rebounds per game. Overcash collected valuable minutes throughout the season, playing in all 30 games. She was most productive on the offensive glass, grabbing a team-leading 42 offensive boards.

Mokwuah played in nearly every game last season and shot 77-of-165 from the floor. Loder, who saw action running the point last year, shot at a .750 clip from the charity stripe, tying 2019-graduate Anna Savino for the team lead.

Rizzotti said she advised the team to increase its level of leadership to fill the gaps left by last season’s senior class. She said the team was at first “stressed out” about the lack of leadership, but she has continued to tell players to use the gap as a strength.

“We don’t need to have that one guy speaking every day because it’s all of your responsibilities to speak,” she said.

Starting leaders like Luma and redshirt junior forward Sarah Overcash are returning, but the Colonials are setting high expectations from their new teammates, especially the graduate transfers.

Rizzotti said she was impressed with the vocal and caring leadership abilities of Maund and Stephenson. She added that even though the pair are in their first year at GW, their three previous years playing collegiate basketball have provided them with maturity the younger players don’t have.

“They really care about how their teammates are doing,” Rizzotti said. “So that combination has been really, really helpful for us, because we don’t have any seniors.”

The freshmen, consisting of guard Essence Brown and forward Faith Blethen, both received significant minutes under their belt during the exhibition game against Mercyhurst Oct. 17, and Brown nabbed double-digit scoring. Luma said the two have fit right into the swing of college basketball.

“They’re both very smart players, so that helps our team,” Luma said. “They’re all aware of coach’s expectations. It’s easier when you can steer the young guys in the right direction.”

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