Since she joined GW in April, women’s basketball Head Coach Caroline McCombs has made defense a point of emphasis wherever she has been.
Fresh off a trip to the NCAA tournament with Stony Brook after spending seven years at the helm, McCombs was hired this off season to replace former Head Coach Jennifer Rizzotti. McCombs will lead the Colonials after they came off a 9-14 season in which they finished 11th in the Atlantic 10, ultimately losing to Richmond in the second round of the A-10 tournament.
“How we guard the ball is the most important thing, and having five people on the floor that know what they’re doing at the same time is really important,” McCombs said.
Under her tutelage, the Seawolves consistently ranked in the top 50 nationally in scoring defense. Two seasons ago they held their opponents to just 54.6 points per game, the 11th-best number in the country at the time.
Following the end of last season, Rizzotti, who led the Colonials for five seasons, was fired. She led the Colonials to the Women’s National Invitational Tournament in 2017 after winning a share of the Atlantic 10 regular season title and the NCAA tournament in 2018 after winning the A-10 tournament, but posted three losing seasons afterwards.
McCombs is looking to make an imprint on a Colonials team with only six players returning from last year and the defense has been the focus coming into the year. She said though the offense will take time to develop, the defense will remain consistent.
“She always says defense is going to win us games, offense decides by how much,” graduate student guard Kyara Frames said. “So defense is definitely our priority. Our team is defense and that is what we represent.”
McCombs said the defense will be primarily man-to-man and will aim to be “scrappy” on the court to guard the ball and prevent opponents from getting easy points inside.
Through their first four games, the Colonials have allowed 53.8 points per game, although they kept their opponent under 50 points three times, conceding 47 points to American, 48 points to Minnesota and 45 points to Old Dominion.
From going shopping together to having team game nights, Blethen said the Colonials have grown together quickly away from the basketball court as well as on it.
“On the court, we’ve just spent a lot of time together,” junior forward Faith Blethen said. “People get in the gym together in different pairs, and I think that’s just increasing our comfort levels with each other and leading to better chemistry.”
Though it is early in the McCombs era at GW, she said she is hopeful the work that the team has been putting in over the summer leading into their first few games will pay off in the long run.
“It’s the daily habits that we create that are really important to our success,” McCombs said. “And we don’t always have to change a scout going into who we’re playing. So that allows us to really focus on us and what we do no matter who we play.”
McCombs’ ‘pound the stone’ mantra focuses more on the process than the results at this early point in her tenure at GW.
“It’s all about the process and the growth and having a growth mindset,” McCombs said. “No matter what happens, continuing to persevere, be resilient. Through successes, through failures, you never know when the stone is going to break. You could be at the brink of it, or you could be far from it. But in whatever you’re doing, just continuing to pursue greatness.”
So far, members of the team, both returners and newcomers, have been buying into this new philosophy.
“Coach McCombs, since she’s been on GW’s campus, has really drilled that with all of us, and it’s the way she lives,” Blethen said. “It’s the way all of us are beginning to think and adapt. And it’s a lifetime mindset. It’s not just a basketball or an athletics mindset. It’s a mindset that we’ll carry throughout our lives.”
Although the Colonials have only averaged 43.8 points per game in their first four games this year, they’ve played two power-conference opponents in Minnesota and No. 24 Virginia Tech. The Colonials have averaged 14 points from turnovers per game, with points off turnovers making up 32 percent of their total points.
Coming into the year, the defense was meant to be the foundation on which the rest of the team would be built, and so far, that has rung true. GW has forced 15.8 turnovers per game, highlighted by a 24-turnovers-forced game against American to open the season. They’ve averaged 7.3 steals per game, led by sophomore guard Aurea Gingras, who had a four-steal performance against Minnesota.
Although the Colonials still have a way to go, the flashes of talent are visible and the squad continues to improve every day. Following Monday’s game, they will head to Puerto Rico over Thanksgiving Break to participate in the San Juan Shootout, where they will play UT Martin and Florida.
“It’s always fun to play against somebody else and see where you are,” McCombs said. “And so, I can’t pre-plan a lot of these things. We’re going to take it as it comes, just laying the foundation, getting our hard hat and our pail, going to work with a blue collar mentality is what we want to see from our players.”