Pittsburgh, PA — George Mason women’s basketball sophomore guard/forward Jacy Bolton saw her team’s fight in a season-opening WNIT game against a ranked Michigan team as the Patriots went to the locker room down 37-31 at halftime.
This was the point that Bolton knew the team’s hard work, which began in March, had paid off.
“It put us in a perspective that everything had paid off with the system, Coach (Nyla Milleson) and each other,” she said. “Right off the bat we knew that this was what we prepared for.”
Though George Mason would lose that game by a 75-61 margin, it was an outcome which proved to this team that it was ready to take the next step as a program and the results since then have reflected that as evidenced by his George Mason women’s basketball team is off to its strongest start to a season in 30 years compiling and finding itself atop the Atlantic 10 standings as non-conference play draws closer to its conclusion.
“Hard work doesn’t always equate to success but we stepped on Michigan’s floor in a tight game at halftime,” George Mason coach Nyla Milleson said. “This season has had a little bit of a different feel than it’s been at any point in time in our tenure at Mason.”
Trusting the process
George Mason freshman guard Nicole Cardano-Hillary recalled a Nov. 24 contest against Drake which was played in Colorado which her team trailed by 18 points in the first quarter and acknowledged that the easy thing to do would be to fold.
There was no chance that would happen.
“We all got together and said ‘we’re not going to lose this game’,” she said. “We pulled it out and little by little we got up and next thing you know, we won so with that, you can tell we’re not going to give up and will fight until the end.”
This is a relatively young George Mason team which remembered the disappointment that came with not being able to play in Atlantic 10 Championship play as it fell to Duquesne in a first round road contest last season.
According to Milleson, that disappointment did not last long, rather it was used as motivation to make sure it would not happen again.
“We spent the majority of the spring and summer on individual workouts,” said Milleson. “They embraced the work. We changed up some things with our workouts and things this group had never done before. It would have been easy especially with our young ones to complain, whine and moan but they embraced the challenge.”
Milleson is in her fifth season at George Mason and not only has transitioned an 8-23 Patriots team her first season into a 13-17 program last year, but also had to guide the transition from the CAA to the Atlantic 10.
It was a big jump in many respects, especially for a team which had not achieved as much success in the CAA. George Mason early on struggled to hold complete practices but now practices are competitive in a new practice facility, the ultimate sign of commitment to both the men’s and women’s basketball programs.
“It was a really big jump,” Milleson recalled of the conference change. “That first team really tried to do what we needed but we didn’t have enough time but you can see from year-to-year our progress. We’re much more in games and we haven’t played any A-10 games but from the non-conference portion of the season we’re competing at a higher level. We’re playing a playing with really good maturity and edge. We’re a pretty young team so we just have to continue to stay the course and continue to work every day.”
What also has helped the team succeed early on in the season is not just the hard work but genuine appreciation and respect for each other.
The team’s chemistry is at an all-time high and the combination of all of this has thus far been a recipe for success.
“I think we have the best chemistry off the court that we’ve had in a long time and that in itself plays a huge role because we get along so well that we want to do well for each other,” said Bolton. “This summer was also one of the best that our team has had conditioning wise and that played a huge role. I think we knew early on that we had the chance to have a good season. We put the extra effort into getting to know each other early and understanding each of our strengths and weakness, and built off of that.”
George Mason was tested from the beginning of its non-conference slate not just by opponents but also by playing nine games in 15 days and six in the first nine. It would have been easy to get tired and have a game or two which did not meet expectations but instead there were five practices in that stretch which made conditioning and quick game plans, in which George Mason focused on what opponents did well in the film room, all the more important.
Attention to detail also has been an important factor into this George Mason team and thus far it has done the little things right, even showing up early to practice to put more work in.
“We were a group of young returners and they bought in,” Milleson said. “A lot of teams are 9-5 teams but this team is doing extra workouts when they don’t have to. Practice starts at 1:30 and we have seven kids there at 12:30. Some players are doing extra conditioning on their own. This is a mature team that bought into the extra things.”
The results have already shown as the team has a +10.0 scoring margin which shows George Mason is finding success on both ends of the ball.
Bolton for example has increased her points per game total to 11.8, an increase of 3.5 points and also is shooting 47.2% from the field versus the 36.8% clip she shot last season.
She tried to put her team’s resolve in very simple terms.
“We have more of a will to win this year,” said Bolton. “Last year we may have folded a bit.”
New pieces fitting in nicely
George Mason lost four seniors last season, among them both Kara Wright and Tiffany Padgett, players that opponents spent a lot of time scouting. There are several key returners this season with Bolton a key returner from a team perspective but also to a now sophomore class Milleson takes a lot of pride in from a recruiting standpoint.
This offseason Natalie Butler officially decided to enroll in George Mason’s graduate program and her 10 double-doubles and 164 rebounds both lead all of NCAA Division I. Her 9.0 rebounds per game rank second in the NCAA.
Butler has been named Atlantic 10 Player of the Week or Co-Player of the Week a season high four times this season averaging 17.9 points in addition to the aforementioned 9.0 rebounds per game.
“She’s been such a great addition for us and her work ethic is just unbelievable,” Milleson said. “She draws a lot of attention with two, three and sometimes four people guarding her. We’ve just got to keep Nat in a scorer’s mindset. Rebounding is very natural but she can be such a prolific scorer. Every day you don’t have the words to describe how positive of an impact she has been, especially to the younger players.”
George Mason welcomed five freshmen this season and several have played important roles this season. Camarie Gatling is averaging 6.2 points and 4.3 rebounds a game in 16.1 minutes. She has appeared in all 12 games played thus far, starting one of those. Additionally Marika Korpinen has appeared in all 12 games averaging 1.9 points and 1.3 rebounds a game in 13.8 minutes.
No freshman has made as big of an impact to George Mason as much as Cardano-Hillary.
Cardano-Hillary is one of those young players and she moved to Texas from Madrid, Spain at age 12. George Mason first met her at an AAU tournament in Texas.
“They explained that I was going to be in an important role and I feel like we followed through with that and it’s been amazing the experience I am getting,” said Cardano-Hillary. “It’s one of a kind.”
Cardano-Hillary has averaged 17.8 points per game which ranks 10th in NCAA Division I and she has twice been named Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Week, a season-high among freshmen.
“It’s very humbling and I am not a person that emphasizes trophies and awards much but it is nice being recognized for that,” she said. “I have to keep it up to stay up in those rankings.
At Atlantic 10 Women’s Basketball Media Day, Milleson proclaimed Cardano-Hillary her starting point guard, but she admits that the level of play her freshman has exhibited was a pleasant surprise.
“Since the day she’s stepped on campus, I think the best word to use is that she is so fearless,” said Milleson. “She’s one of those players and one of my best players throughout the course of my 30-plus years. I don’t want to say she plays with no emotion because she plays very hard but you walk in that gym and you would never know if we’re up 10, down 10, she has 20 points or she hasn’t scored. She plays, particularly as a freshman, with such a level of consistent emotion, consistency in terms of her efforts. She just plays, I don’t know how else to describe her.”
What drives Cardano-Hillary? That answer is quite simple.
“I’ve always been a very competitive person so I’m always ready to win and go at it 100%,” she said. “This team is all on the same page, we want it all and we’re not going to quit until we get there.”
George Mason last played Dec. 11 in a victory against the University of Maryland Baltimore County and has 10 days between games. Milleson used this time effectively hitting the recruiting trails.
Winning always helps recruiting and for this season’s record to aid Milleson’s goals and messages to her team goes a long way in that process.
“It helps a lot when you are out recruiting and talking to the people,” she said. “There is good buzz on campus that you’re winning. People want to play for the best they can play for. People saw what we were doing with our transfers and we had to get the best we could get. Everything has had a purpose and a process. I think we’ve gone about it the right way and now you can say that our kids have trusted the process and look where Mason is at.”
Senior guard/forward Tayler Dodson also was able to see the effect her team’s start to the season played as it was noticed off campus.
It’s nice when you go to pick up food off campus and the manager congratulates you on a 10-2 start. 💚🏀
— Tayler Dodson (@ballerbby32) December 14, 2017
From a mentality standpoint, George Mason is excited about this quick start, though by no means does this mean that it will settle.
Atlantic 10 play begin Dec. 31 and George Mason will host Davidson looking to improve its 6-10 conference mark from a season ago.
Both Michigan and Colorado underestimated this George Mason team and nearly paid the price for it, Bolton believes that with more hard work, continued success may come.
“During this extended time I have realized that we are 10-2 and making history here at Mason,” she said. “It has allowed me to realize that we are doing something and making a legacy. That is one of our goals here and we’re doing that. It just makes me more hungry to get more wins and surprise more people.”
Photo credit: Rafael Suanes/George Mason Athletics