Women's Hoops Seeing Payoff After Difficult Non-Conference Slate

Jan. 10, 2018

By Eric Detweiler, GW Athletics Communications

Jennifer Rizzotti cut right to the chase.

After GW's 59-45 win at Monmouth on Dec. 22, the second-year head coach took a few moments to savor a satisfying cap to the nonconference slate, but she already had Atlantic 10 play on her mind.

The Colonials turned the page right there in the OceanFirst Bank Center locker room.

"Alright," Rizzotti told her squad, "we're 0-0 again."

GW could appreciate the fresh start after surviving an arduous out-of-conference schedule. The Colonials were tested at every turn early in the season, a run designed to get an inexperienced bunch prepared to chase another A-10 title.

Rizzotti's greatest challenge through the opening weeks was to make sure the group stayed positive and kept progressing in the face of that trial by fire.

Now, the lessons learned along the way seem to be paying dividends. After dropping seven out of its first 10 games, GW has won four of its past five.

The Colonials moved to 2-1 in A-10 play and within a game of .500 at 7-8 overall with Sunday's 62-52 win over Revolutionary Rival George Mason. They'll try to build on that newfound momentum Saturday in a nationally televised showdown with first-place Duquesne at Charles E. Smith Center.

"It was definitely worthwhile," guard Kelsi Mahoney said of the patience-testing start. "It was hard going through it, but I'm thankful that we did it."

This year, Rizzotti knew she'd be blending youngsters getting used to the demands of the college game with a handful of veterans being asked to take on bigger roles than ever before.

She wanted to make sure the group had plenty of experience playing together against quality competition by the time it reached the A-10 grind.

Rizzotti cautions that nonconference scheduling is an inexact science. Program reputation and roster projection can help, but ultimately, it's difficult to know what's coming until the games arrive, she said.

Fortunately, this year's edition provided exactly what Rizzotti hoped. The Colonials currently rank 25th nationally in strength of schedule, thanks to four matchups with Top-50 RPI opponents in nonconference play.

"Although at times we felt overwhelmed like we had a bunch to work on, it still put everything out there on the plate for us," Rizzotti said. "That kind of allowed us to tackle things one at a time."

Rizzotti's squad ran the gauntlet, starting on the road against a Princeton program that has qualified for six of the past eight NCAA Tournaments.

The Colonials got tested to score against tenacious zones from Syracuse and Vanderbilt on their home floor over Thanksgiving in the relocated Paradise Jam, while Mercer's smothering man-to-man defense was eye-opening for everybody.

GW had to try to keep up with high-powered offenses like South Dakota State and South Florida and figure out how to match up with a perennial national title contender in Maryland.

The Colonials lost all of those games but found useful takeaways from each.

"We all knew it was going to be a process," said Mahoney, a gifted shooter who has worked hard to round out her game and make a difference on both ends of the floor in her junior season.

Rizzotti took care to constantly remind the Colonials that nobody in the A-10 was tackling such an ambitious early season gauntlet. The coach tried to focus on achievable goals within a certain game or week, such as limiting turnovers, to stoke confidence in the difficult times.

She leaned on her upperclassmen, especially captains Brianna Cummings, Mei-Lyn Bautista and Camila Tapias, to hammer home those messages and keep the mood upbeat.

"We all just kept encouraging one another," said Neila Luma, a freshman who is averaging 9.8 points over the past five games. "We knew that we had a big goal in mind (of an A-10 championship), so we just had to keep working towards that."

The fruits of that approach have been evident of late. Even with senior Kelli Prange slowed by a concussion, the Colonials seem to have hit their stride at the right time.

Cummings and Luma are blossoming on the offensive end, boosted by the continued steady play of the point guard Bautista, while the defense has locked down and limited opponents to 48.2 points over the past five games.

The Colonials looked particularly comfortable and confident Sunday in handing their local rival Patriots their first conference defeat.

"There's just more consistency," Rizzotti said. "It's just everybody kind of doing their part a little bit more every week. I feel good about that."

That's why the Colonials cheered Rizzotti's forward-thinking postgame speech at Monmouth last month. They were just as excited to reach the clean slate of A-10 play and try to use the lessons from a tough start to pave the way for an exciting finish.

"We know this is what matters right now," Mahoney said. "It was kind of a relief to feel those losses get pushed in the back of our mind a little bit and know we could really work toward trying to win each day moving forward."