On March 22, Caroline McCombs was in San Antonio coaching Stony Brook women’s basketball in its first NCAA tournament appearance in program history.
A little more than two weeks later, she stood in front of a socially distant Smith Center crowd for her introductory press conference as the 11th coach in women’s basketball history.
McCombs was named the team’s head coach April 2, inheriting a program that hasn’t seen a winning season in three years. She said her team’s identity hinges on its defense, and fans can expect to see the Colonials crash the boards and stretch the court in transition under her tenure.
“Our defense tells us if we win, our offense tells us by how much, so we’re going to be tough,” she said in her introductory press conference last week. “We’re going to be gritty. We’re going to be hardworking on the core. We can control those things. We can control our effort and how hard we work every day.”
She arrived in Foggy Bottom less than three weeks after former head coach Jennifer Rizzotti and her staff were ousted. University President Thomas LeBlanc said McCombs rose to the top of a “competitive search” and has the potential to bring GW back to the national stage.
“I want to win,” LeBlanc said. “These ladies here, they want to win. The fans here at GW, we want to win. We want to do it with class. We want to do it with style, discipline. You have clearly demonstrated you embody these values, and you’ll foster a culture of discipline, excellence and service.”
McCombs has served as an assistant coach at Auburn, Northwestern, Pittsburgh and Valparaiso before she took the lead at Stony Brook. She put the Seawolves on the map in her seven years at the helm, recording a program-best 130-76 record.
She recorded just one losing record at Stony Brook in 2016-17, but her squad bounced back to secure two 23-plus win seasons in 2018-19 and 2019-20 that saw the team go 28-3 on its home court. The Seawolves were on track to compete in the American East Championship game in the 2019-20 season, but the COVID-19 pandemic cut the season short.
Stony Brook elevated its game in this season, claiming the American East Championship and earning its first berth to the NCAA tournament. Athletic Director Tanya Vogel said she wanted a “proven winner” to put GW back on the map as a postseason threat.
“Caroline McCombs is that proven winner,” she said. “But more importantly, she’s a lifelong learner, who is in the pursuit of the very gritty pursuit of mastery in her craft.”
At GW, McCombs said the team’s identity will hinge on its defense. She will inherit a program that led the Atlantic 10 in limiting opponent scoring, allowing just 56 points per contest during the season. But the program also struggled to put points on the board, ranking No. 13 of 14 with 56.1 points a game.
“Defense will ignite our offense,” she said. “So if we commit to playing good defense, that’ll lead to transition opportunities for us. And that’s a really exciting style that our teams have played in, defending, rebounding. Whether that’s a rebound or a turnover, whatever that defensive stop is, we want to turn that into points.”
In addition to opportunities in transition, McCombs said she wants her squad to attack the basket on drives and beyond the arc. The squad shot .380 from the field and just .249 from long distance.
“We need to shoot threes,” McCombs said. “We need to make layups. We need to get to the free throw line and do all of those little things. We’re going to have an attacking mentality on offense. We’re not going to be passive.”
Just six players remain from the 2020-21 season. Graduate student guards Jasmine Whitney and Sydney Zambrotta will graduate from the program, while four players have entered the transfer portal.
Freshman center Ali Brigham, freshman forward Caranda Perea and redshirt junior forward Neila Luma left the team after Rizzotti’s firing, and redshirt junior guard Gabby Nikitinaite entered the portal after McComb’s introductory press conference.
McCombs said GW will become a “program of player development,” and she will sink time into helping student-athletes lay a strong foundation.
“We will continue to invest in you in your overall skill set at each individual workout, at pre-practice, at post-practice and throughout each practice,” she said. “We will be consistent with our fundamentals, such as footwork, and in doing all of the little things because we know that little things add up to big things.”
She added that she plans to begin developing relationships with her players on and off the court and instill her “pound the stone” culture as soon as possible in the offseason. McCombs added that she wants to teach her team to be courageous, vulnerable and authentic.
“As we can open up and really know who we are, we’ll run through a wall on this floor for each other,” she said. “And that’s the type of relationship and interactions that I want to be able to have with our team. Pound the stone is really a lifestyle, and I’m so excited to begin this journey with this new team.”