Richmond, VA— A year ago, George Washington women’s basketball coach Jennifer Rizzotti could not help but cry after a quarterfinals loss, because she felt like she had let her seniors down and in turn, the quartet felt it had disappointed its first-year coach.
With just over a minute left in regulation, Rizzotti substituted her starters out of the game hugging seniors Kelli Prange, Brianna Cummings and Camila Tapias, picking the latter two up off the ground.
As a senior, Cummings did not want to experience this feeling again and made it a point to go to Rizzotti’s office expressing two goals she had in mind.
“Win the A-10 tournament and then get back in the NCAA and win that tournament,” she said. “She’s (Rizzotti) been amazing all year and we’re a tough group to handle. I give it all to Coach Rizz to take what we had this year, and so many people doubted us, but we knew what our end goal was. It may not click day one or day 60, but we were focused on it clicking at the end of the season.”
Sunday, with last year’s seniors in attendance, George Washington checked one of those goals off the list, winning its third Atlantic 10 Championship in four years, this one by a 65-49 score over Saint Joseph’s.
“We weren’t a great basketball team on day one when we went up to Princeton and lost by 20, but they never wavered in their faith in each other and what we were trying to do,” George Washington coach Jennifer Rizzotti said.
Some more highlights, sights and sounds from today's unbelievable @A10WBB Championship finale!
— GW Womens Basketball (@GW_WBB) March 5, 2018
Following the game, Saint Joseph’s coach Cindy Griffin praised her team’s opponent for their play.
“I just think they played great today, this is the best I’ve seen them play on any film I’ve watched,” she said. “They made shots when they needed to. They got production from all of their players and we weren’t able to do that today.”
Rizzotti is in her second season at GW and from the moment she stepped foot in Foggy Bottom, junior guard Mei-Lyn Bautista bought in and listened to the former UConn guard, who further achieved success as a coach at Hartford and remains active with USA Basketball.
“She’s someone who has done it before to the best of her ability,” she said. “She has set the stepping stone for women’s basketball, you can’t trust that enough. As a point guard playing under someone who is one of the greatest, I can’t be more honored. She sees what I am capable of doing. This is normal for her, we’re all excited, and she’s ready to keep going. This is what she’s made for and to play for someone who is hungry for it all, it’s amazing. How could you not want to give it all?”
For her part, Bautista had an Atlantic 10 Championship to remember. For four days, three of which were played in succession, she did not make a mistake, recording 26 assists and no turnovers, making sure the basketball was spread around and ensured teammates put up high-percentage shots.
“We wouldn’t be able to go anywhere period if it weren’t for Mei-Lyn,” said Rizzotti. “She’s barely made a mistake in two weeks. I’m not sure if anyone was more excited when I got to more GW, she wanted to play for a former player and she may have been the first one invested in me as a coach.”
Rizzotti further admitted that she really had to dig deep to find something wrong with Bautista, ultimately settling on her inbounding the ball too quickly for her liking, a clear sign that the her five-foot-six guard was executing the game plan essentially close to perfection.
“My trust in my teammates has always been there since we first started,” Bautista explained. “If there is a turnover, I am going to take that blame on myself, because the pass could have been better or I could have set them up for a better play. To play in a tournament and have zero turnovers, I am very proud of that but I am not satisfied. Coach Rizzotti tells me to take care of the ball and if we take care of the ball as a team, we win. It’s not easy, I have turnovers but I always tell myself, ‘next play’ and that my teammates have my back and the confidence and courage they have in me, I give it back to them.”
It was February 1 when George Washington hosted La Salle, with the former having a 9-11 overall record and an even 4-4 conference mark, that junior forward Kelsi Mahoney cited as the turning point this season. The game, a 60-45 GW win got the ball rolling and showed the team that the hard work, the change in offensive philosophy and the ups and downs were all worth it.
“Mei and I look at each other before every game and when we’re feeling really good, we’ll look over and say ‘I feel it’,” said Mahoney. “I know it sounds cheesy, but it was kind of like an aha moment. We had a good slate to beat every single team here, we had a good run in February coming off Richmond which provided extra fuel. I’ve always thought we would get here but that was when I knew this was it.”
In that month of February, GW won seven games include an Atlantic 10 Championship first round home game at La Salle and even though it dropped the regular season finale to Richmond, the team still very much had momentum and positivity which set the stage for this championship run.
“I feel like February was very important,” Cummings said. “You don’t want to click too early because you want to be playing your best basketball in March. February, our defense was unbelievable and that sets the tone for us. We were able to carry that into March.”
All season long, GW has been a family, picking each other up when mistakes were made or there was an injury.
In the first half, Mahoney briefly went down with an ankle injury for what she claimed was the “100th time” this season. She immediately motioned to the referee to show she was in pain.
When she was taken off the court, fans all fans, band, cheerleaders and dancers from George Washington, loudly applauded her and that ovation only became louder when she subbed back into the game.
“It is a family,”said Mahoney. “GW band, GW Spirit, First Ladies, they are at every single one of our games cheering us on so hard and so loud, they know us all in and out. I swear they even know our plays at this point, they are so invested in all of us. They are the best people in the world.”
Mahoney would get right back up and scored 12 points, took a fourth quarter charge and again played masterful defense on a noticeably taller player. Mahoney now leads the team is charges after her play this weekend
“It’s all about finding a way for the team to win,” Mahoney said. “I pride myself at being one of the smartest on the team, basketball IQ wise, offensively and defensively. It’s become a knack and I believe I took my first charge this season too and to have those all going for me is pretty cool.”
George Washington now has to wait a week to find out its fate, but now knows for sure that regardless of the next opponent, it will be at the NCAA Tournament.
As she was about to leave the media room, Bautista was asked about her Monday’s With Mei segment which became a big hit the team would occasionally posted on its Twitter account and what a hypothetical episode would look like following this win.
The smile never left her face.
“As of late these past couple of days being here my social media keeps saying ‘what did I tell you, we’re not going home’,” said Bautista. “I think my last video today would be ‘you know what guys, I’ve got to go home, but look who I’m bringing.’ It will be a nice big trophy and I’m going to bring that home to the District celebrating with my GW family and be proud. We’re all going to stand up together and be ready for the next. That Monday’s With Mei will be really tough, a lot of people will have goosebumps, but it would be worth it.”
Each year, selected media had an opportunity to vote for the Atlantic 10 All-Tournament team. The final team was Jackie Kemph from Saint Louis, Chelsea Woods from Saint Joseph’s and Mei-Lyn Bautista, Kelsi Mahoney and Brianna Cummings (most outstanding player) from George Washington. This season, a10talk.com’s Zachary Weiss got a chance to submit a ballot which is below with explanations.
1. Brianna Cummings GW– Cummings was the most consistent presence for GW all season and that extended into the tournament. Even early in Sunday’s game when her shot did not fall, she was a facilitator and that kept the offense flowing. She finished Sunday with a game-high 17 points to go with five assists. This name was written down even before the ball had tipped off.
2. Chelsea Woods Saint Joseph’s– Another very deserving nod as she led her team through some challenging games. Her perfect pass to teammate Sarah Veilleux allowed the Hawks to advance in the quarterfinals and she showed leadership even with Sunday’s frustration.
3. Kelsi Mahoney GW– This spot came down to Mahoney or Kelli Prange, also from GW. Mahoney got the nod because of her ability to take charges, handling post players taller than her by a healthy margin, leadership, resiliency and bounce back ability. I will not lie, going into the game I was looking to find any way to write her name down because she really deserves it and when she took the fourth quarter charge, that secured her spot.
4. Mei-Lyn Bautista GW– When you play three games in three days and four in a week, the easy thing to do is get tired. Bautista was consistent while recording 26 assists over the four games. Additionally she did not turn the ball over once all week long and mixed up looks making sure her team was able to take good shots, For as vocal as Bautista is on and off the court, her passing and deferring to teammates may speak the loudest volume.
5. Natalie Butler George Mason– Each voter is reminded when he or she receives their ballots to look at all of the games across the championship and are given both each box score and cumulative stats heading into the finals. Though Jackie Kemph is a fantastic player, she never received consideration from me because she was aided a lot by the free throw line in the quarterfinals and had no assists compared to five turnovers against Saint Joseph’s. Butler recorded two double-doubles and had to carry a larger than usual role for her team in the quarterfinal loss to GW because no one else could consistently put the ball in the basket. G’mrice Davis from Fordham was also considered but her foul trouble cause some of her edge to be lost in the second half and she repeated a traveling mistake at least twice so Butler was clearly the one who deserved the final nod in my mind.