Nearly two years ago, women’s basketball was thrown into a state of flux by the abrupt firing of then-Head Coach Jennifer Rizzotti. Now, this year’s seniors, the last players with ties to the Rizzotti era, are looking to cement their legacy as pillars of stability amid one of the most tumultuous periods in program history.
For redshirt senior forward Mayowa Taiwo, senior forward Faith Blethen and senior guard Essence Brown, this season is about striving toward group success and instilling team-first values in their younger teammates. As Head Coach Caroline McCombs enters her second season at the helm of the program, the trio of seniors has all taken on leadership roles, with a particular focus on guiding the incoming freshmen through the challenging adjustment to Division I-level play.
“I feel like it’s been a process for the three of us over the past four years,” Blethen said. “We’ve gone through coaching changes together, gone through teammate changes, staff changes, all of those things. I think we’ve learned a lot of things that make us more prepared for each season.”
When McCombs took over as head coach for the 2021-22 season, she brought along an entirely new coaching staff and added assistant coaches Sherill Baker and Adria Crawford this season.
Blethen said because only three players remained after former Head Coach Jenifer Rizzotti was fired in March 2021, the responsibility fell on them to acclimate the new coaching staff to GW and D.C. and help their incoming teammates adjust to the new program and life as a student-athlete. She said their deeper experience at GW played a key role in uniting the team and allowing them to learn and grow together.
The senior leadership will prove vital as the team looks to make a run at the Atlantic 10 Championship after finishing with a 13-18 record last season.
Blethen said the team worked on spreading the floor during the off-season to allow for a more aggressive, slashing style of play. She said this summer provided her and the other seniors the opportunity to help build a strong team culture by encouraging players to spend time together off the court.
“I think the most important thing we do though actually is how much time we spend together and the relationships that we’re building on and off the court because I feel like this team has some of the best chemistry I’ve ever been around,” Blethen said. “The work that we put into really getting to know each other as players and as people is going to contribute most to our successes here.”
Blethen said the team will rely on the chemistry cultivated off the court to breed success on the hardwood, particularly on the defensive end, where she said they play “like a pack.”
“At our core, we’ve always been a defensive team,” she said. “Our defensive strategy has changed. Before we were a denial team, we tried to pressure people a lot and so we had really good on-ball pressure, but we’re trying to get gap steals. So just really being in help and communicating with each other and rotating when we can.”
Brown said the coaching change last season cultivated the mental fortitude the team will need this season when the going gets tough. She said her time with the program has been a “great journey” with a lot of changes over the years that have allowed her to better adapt and grow on and off the court.
Brown said the seniors have placed a special emphasis on defense, focusing on footwork with their strength coach and actively working on team defense in practices. She said the team plans to stockpile points from 3-point range this season after instituting the “Curry Club” program, which the coaching staff developed to require players to make at least 250 3-point shots each practice to model NBA star Stephen Curry’s practice routine.
“Offensively, it’s completely different,” Brown said. “I think that we push the ball in transition a lot more, we play with our guards a lot more.”
She said the team has been training different aspects of their offense, like filling the zone, coming off stagger screens and getting shots up quicker. She said she’s excited to implement the new offense in a real-game setting.
Taiwo said the team has focused on working on players’ individual skill sets over the off-season in an effort to boost confidence, especially when it comes to 3-point shooting, a weak point for the squad last season. The Colonials struggled with a .271 percent shot percentage from beyond the arc last year, landing them second to last in the A-10 behind Saint Louis in the category.
“I think we struggled to find easy 3-point shots, and that’s what we’ve been working to fight for, to get to those spots that have the highest percentage, which are kick-out threes for us,” Taiwo said. “Threes that aren’t contested and threes that fall within our offense. I think the more of those shots we get, the higher percentage you’ll see.”
Taiwo said the team needs to kick off the season with a better start than last year, when the team stumbled out of the gate, losing the first eight games of their nonconference slate.
“I’m excited to compete,” Taiwo said. “For me, it’s sometimes easy to forget when the pre-season feels like such a long time, but then once again, it was fun and then like people say, team meals, traveling, bus ride, all the fun things.”
This article appeared in the November 7, 2022 issue of the Hatchet.