Top moments in GW sports: Women’s basketball dances to Elite Eight

Media Credit: File Photo by Eric Lee

The Colonials finished 10 points short of an appearance in the Final Four of 1997's NCAA tournament.

In lieu of fall sports, we’re dusting off the history books and taking a look back on 10 of the best GW sports moments, ever. Here’s to hoping some old-fashioned nostalgia can keep us going until the restart. 

No. 1: Women’s basketball charges into 1997 Elite Eight

The 1996-97 women’s basketball team not only cemented itself in GW history with the deep tournament run but continues to be one of the top-performing teams in the Atlantic 10’s 45-year history.

Helmed by legendary head coach Joe McKeown and led by a trio of top-scoring seniors, the season culminated in the deepest run in the NCAA tournament by any GW basketball team. The Colonials were the first of the current A-10 teams to reach the Elite Eight and, along with the 2014-15 Dayton Flyers, GW was one of two teams to achieve the feat.

Despite the historic run, the season started off rocky for the Colonials. Opening with a 70–44 loss against Old Dominion, the team quickly slid to a 1-3 start. While they finished out nonconference play on a 4-1 run, the squad shined against A-10 competition.

The Colonials posted a perfect 16-0 conference record with a slew of dominating wins. They tallied nine 30-plus point victories against conference competition. To celebrate the unprecedented run, the team buzzed “16-0” into McKeown’s hair.

With a regular-season crown and momentum on its side, GW decimated Temple in its first game of the A-10 Tournament by more than 40 points. The Colonials steamrolled Massachusetts in the second game by 41 points. But the squad met its match in the championship game, dropping a tightly-contested 59–56 matchup with Saint Joseph’s.

The Hawks, which were the only other A-10 team to receive an NCAA bid that season, were knocked out in the second round by Alabama.

Selection Sunday rewarded the Colonials’ efforts, and the team entered the NCAA tournament as a No. 5 seed. The squad went right to work, earning back-to-back 10-plus point wins over No. 12 Northwestern and No. 4 Tulane. The upset over the Green Wave propelled the team to the Sweet 16.

The Sweet 16 was as far as GW was expected to go as the Colonials were set to face the top-seeded TarHeels in the next round. Tajama Abraham Ngongba, who graduated in 1997, told The Hatchet in an April interview that the squad knew they were the underdog in the matchup, but McKeown instilled confidence in the team to pull out the win.

“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. That’s what we believed.”

North Carolina held a one-point lead with five minutes left, but the Colonials went on a 10-0 tear to grab the win and punch their ticket to the Elite Eight.

The historic run ended in Columbia, South Carolina, with a 62–52 loss to Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish were 30-6 heading into the matchup and suffered just one loss in their 18-game Big East schedule en route to its first Final Four appearance in program history.

In 1998, Coach McKeown told The Hatchet that losing out on the final round was a game that haunted him even a year later.

“We were so close to getting into the ‘Final Four’ that they could taste it,” McKeown said. “Losing to Notre Dame was our hardest loss – I still have nightmares about that.”

The squad spent five weeks within the Associated Press’s top-25 teams in the country. The Colonials hopped on the list Feb. 10 at No. 24 and worked up to No. 18 March 3 before falling back to No. 22 March 10.

The season capped off the careers of seniors Ngongba, Colleen McCrea and Lisa Cermignano. With Ngongba’s scoring (19.9 points per game), Cermignano’s long range (0.437 three-point shooting clip) and McCrea’s passing (5.8 assists per game), the trio formed the core of GW’s offense.

Ngongba had one of the most successful GW athletic careers of all time. She piled on 675 points in her final season, making her the top-scoring player in program history with 2,134 career points. She also ranked within the top three in program history in blocks (326), games played (130), career rebounds (970), career free throws made (432) and highest career scoring average (16.4).

After playing for the WBNA’s Sacramento Monarchs for a few years, Ngongba returned to GW as an administrative assistant and later served as an assistant coach from 2005-2009. She is now an assistant coach at conference rival George Mason.

McCrea ranks within the top-five in program history in assists (573) and steals (271), while Cermignano sank the second-highest number of triples of any GW player (270).

1996-97 was a stepping stone in McKeown’s career as the winningest coach in GW history. He won the A-10 Coach of the Year Award a record five times, including in 1997, and tallied 441 wins throughout his tenure.

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