It’s safe to say that the 2021 basketball season did not live up to expectations in Fairfax. In what turned out to be the final year of Nyla Milleson’s tenure at the helm, George Mason posted a 3-19 overall record, including an 0-14 record in conference play, and a losing streak of 15 consecutive games to end the season. The Patriots ended the regular season ranked dead last in Division-I in field goal percentage, shooting 30% from the field on the season. In addition, the Patriots ranked 326th in points per game at just a mere 50.5 points, placed 316th in scoring margin (-14.3), 324th in assists per game (9.3), and 315th in win-loss percentage (.143). Very few things went their way in what was certainly a very long season in Fairfax, and it hasn’t sat well, especially with the returning players who use that as motivation.
“It’s tough to have had the season that they had last year,” said new Head Coach Vanessa Blair-Lewis. “And a lot of teams had a season that wasn’t truly indicative of who they were, just because of COVID.”
For Mason this year, the trick is going to be combining a wide variety of new pieces into a roster that retained a majority of its players from a year ago, despite the coaching change. Among the new additions are four transfers, including Amaya Scott and Jayla Adams, both of which came from Bethune-Cookman with the new coaching staff.
“I think Amaya Scott is going to be one this is going to be one that’s tough to contend with,” said Blair-Lewis. “She was the preseason conference player of the year in the conference we came from, the MEAC. And she was won three straight championships, so she has that instilled in her.” Among the other key transfers, Coach Blair-Lewis was very excited to have Illinois transfer J-Naya Ephraim and emphasized how important it is to have players that understand what it’s like to face high level competition, like Maryland, in the Big Ten Conference on a nightly basis.
Having opportunities like that for Mason will be aplenty this season, as the Patriots have a very difficult non-conference schedule, that includes home games against #24 Virginia Tech on opening weekend, and Florida on December 1. And that’s all part of the recipe in building this program.
“We’re not just believing in wins here in the conference, we want to set our eyes, we want to go to the [NCAA] Tournament, we want to do some damage in the Tournament like our guys have seen in the past,” said Blair-Lewis. “I think for those girls get an opportunity to compete against that next stage. It gives them an opportunity to raise to their better game.”
It’s not just high-level opponents that have this team excited for the new season: it’s also a return to normalcy, at least as much as there can be normalcy right now.
Last year it was really hard just because everything was so unknown but just the fact that it’s not like it was just practice our scrimmage every day,” said returning fifth-year senior Marika Korpinen. “We never had that same [number of] fans in there. You know, that’s why we play.”
For both Vanessa Blair-Lewis and Marika Korpinen, they have their eyes set on a winning culture in Fairfax. In fact, it was the first conversation the two had after Blair-Lewis was hired as the new Women’s Basketball coach for the Green and Gold.
“I want to be able to leave a legacy,” said Korpinen. “I want to be able to win the championship like I said, but also want to set the example of what hard work should be, the level or quality of work that we should be doing every single day, the consistency by giving it your all. I want to be able to show the younger players how I’m used to working and showing the results.”
That level of work ethic and knowing what it takes seems to be a key part of the foundation of this new-look George Mason team. But what has been missing is that confidence level and that swagger that sets good teams apart from the rest. The Patriots will be getting an infusion of that with Amaya Scott: when I asked her what made her want to follow the coaching staff from Bethune-Cookman to Mason, she gave a very simple response.
“I need another ring,” said Scott. “With [the coaching staff at Bethune-Cookman], all those years I got a ring. So, it’s just like I know if I come here to make this change this culture. The record last year, it wasn’t too good. So, I know that we can come here, and we can make a difference.”
When I asked Vanessa Blair-Lewis what would constitute a successful first year at Mason, she was honest. “Obviously, the success comes from, for us, wins and losses. You want to have you more in that column than loses. But I think there’s a picture behind the scenes as well, is that they believe that they can win any game not just some games but any game and as a coach you’ll start to see that happen as the season starts with confidence.”
And that confidence is what is going to be so crucial for this team and program moving forward. Changing that culture from a program that lost 15 straight games to end last season, into to one that they believe can compete with a nationally ranked Virginia Tech team on opening weekend is truly something to behold. It’s night and day with George Mason from a year ago, and this infusion of new life into the program is just what the doctor ordered.