Sports from the Archives: Ngongba recalls Elite Eight run, coaching career

Media Credit: File Photo by Jack Borowiak | Staff Photographer

Center and 1997 graduate Tajama Abraham Ngongba and her fellow senior captains led the women's basketball team to enter the NCAA Tournament as a No. 5 seed.

After a rocky 3-4 start to the 1996-97 women’s basketball season, center and 1997 graduate Tajama Abraham Ngongba said she and her fellow senior captains regrouped with one goal in mind – finish the season with a spotless Atlantic 10 record.

Ngongba said former head coach Joe McKeown looked at the trio of seniors, which included guards Colleen McCrea and Lisa Cermignano, “like we were crazy.” But the team went on to knock off all 16 conference foes in the regular season to earn itself a trip to the NCAA Tournament for the fourth consecutive year.

“He said, ‘If you guys do that, I will let you shave 16-0 in the back of my head,’” Ngongba said. “Needless to say, we shaved 16-0 in the back of his head.”

The team’s winning streak ended in the A-10 Tournament title game when Saint Joseph’s came out victorious. But the Colonials still entered the NCAA Tournament as a No. 5 seed, taking down Northwestern and Tulane before squaring off with the top-seeded North Carolina Tar Heels.

Ngongba said the players were so in tune with one other that they would deviate from McKeown’s plan and run plays of their own.

She recalled a game in the tournament when the team trailed, and McKeown called a timeout to design a play for a guard. Once the team took the court, former point guard Colleen McRae huddled the squad together and called for a different play, which led McKeown to throw his suit jacket around in anger until Ngongba netted the bucket.

“My point guard, who knows everybody on the floor better than they know themselves at the time, made that call and knew that was the best call at that moment,” Ngongba said. “Because as a player, when you’re on the floor in the trenches, sometimes you do have a better feel of what’s needed than the coaches who are on the sidelines, and it’s not always, but there are moments when that’s real.”

The Tar Heels led 46–45, but the Colonials’ matchup zone defense held their opponents scoreless for the rest of regulation. GW notched 10 straight points to earn a spot in the Eastern Conference Semifinals against Notre Dame.

“We knew we were considered the underdog, but it wasn’t like we felt we were the underdog going in,” Ngongba said. “Coach McKeown did a great job. He’s such a good player’s coach. He did a great job of getting us to believe that we were equal anytime we stepped on the floor.”

The Colonials fell to the Fighting Irish 62–52, wrapping GW’s deepest run into the tournament on both the men’s and women’s sides in program history. The matchup was also Ngongba’s last game in the buff and blue, where she cemented herself in the record books as GW’s all-time leading scorer with 2,134 points.

Ngongba, along with Cermignano and 2008 graduate guard Sarah-Jo Lawrence, has played the most games as a Colonial, seeing action in 130 over her four-year career. She also ranks second in both all-time rebounding, blocks and free throws made.

Her strong performance positioned herself as a professional prospect and earned her a spot in the newly established Women’s National Basketball League. She was selected No. 31 in the 1997 WNBA draft by the Sacramento Monarchs. She said the team’s tournament run elevated her confidence heading into a tough professional league.

“At that level, your confidence will be challenged every day,” Ngongba said. “To be able to have gone into that world with my confidence at probably the highest level needed was great because on the days it was knocked down, it never got so far that I couldn’t get back up.”

After a two-year stint where she averaged 3.5 points per game and shot at a .379 percent clip from the field, she said McKeown recruited her back to GW as an administrative assistant, a present-day director of basketball operations. Ngongba added that she thought her former coach was “crazy” to bring her back, but she took the part-time position and fell in love with coaching.

“I really started to love the idea of coaching on the sidelines,” she said. “I didn’t think I would at first, but I really did, and then obviously it’s just sweeter being at my alma mater. It made it the perfect way to begin my career and learn so much in that moment, but it was great being at a university that I felt like I knew inside and out, that when I spoke to recruits, it wasn’t just something that I thought or something that I read online.”

After leaving GW, she bounced around the A-10 as an assistant coach, from Richmond, to VCU and eventually back to GW. In 2008, she was named head coach of the women’s basketball program at Radford before finding a place at George Mason as an assistant coach.

During her five seasons heading Radford, she compiled a 43-41 record. In her third year, she led the Highlanders into a tie for the No. 2 seed, earning her Big South Coach of the Year honors. Ngongba said her coaching style was modeled after McKeown’s and her experience in the Elite Eight.

“The first thing that they had asked in that head coaches meeting in the fall was, ‘Are you going to bring the matchup zone defense that you used at GW to the Big South conference,’” Ngongba said. “I just smiled because my thought process was, ‘Absolutely. That defense got us to the Elite Eight.’”

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