As George Washington women’s basketball seniors Mei-Lyn Bautista and Kelsi Mahoney sat in La Salle’s visiting locker room last season, the two had a feeling that the team was beginning to click and that the season could be something special.
Two months later that vision was realized as GW won the Atlantic 10 Women’s Basketball Championship and as conference play continues in the 2018-19 season, those positive feelings are beginning to return, though work still needs to be done.
In its two most recent games, GW has handed VCU its lone conference loss and then a few days later had a 24 point lead against preseason conference favorite Duquesne late in the third quarter and held on to win the game by one point.
“It proves to the team no matter how we start if we can fix things and stay composed, that we can win a game,” GW coach Jennifer Rizzotti said of her team. “Also no matter how good we start, if we don’t stay locked in, we can also lose the game. This year this league is showing that. you see who has lost to who, who has won against who and who takes who to overtime, it is literally wide open and anyone’s game. It doesn’t get any easier.”
Rizzotti understood going into this season that GW lost a lot of productivity with its group of departing seniors, Brianna Cummings, Taylor Campbell, Kelli Prange and Camila Tapias, all of whom saw important minutes and played roles in an NCAA Tournament season.
Coming into the season, it was clear that the team has bought into Rizzotti’s vision, something which did not happen overnight.
Given GW had a group of established seniors and the aforementioned class was in its junior season, Rizzotti admitted that at times she held back as this team had become familiar with success and what it took to win.
Last season, that changed and it was clear that coming into this season, the players were just as, if not more committed.
“Winning a championship increases the credibility anytime you can insist you are going to do things in a certain way and it results in a positive for everybody,” said Rizzotti. “The team bought in the second half of last season and saw the fruits of their labor. So far it has been very similar. We’re still young in terms of the makeup of our team but they are more comfortable knowing I will be hard on them every day, driving and pushing them to be their best.”
With a lot of production lost and just five players from last season’s team returning, the biggest concern has been putting the ball in the basket.
“We got really comfortable with our offense last year and we have to recreate our offense with the personnel we have this year,” Rizzotti said. “Just trying to be more comfortable and stay more organized.”
Something which does drive GW is the fact that it has yet to play a 40-minute game.
Duquesne was an effort in which the team was close but a 25-9 fourth quarter went in the opposite direction and George Washington had to fight to keep its lead.
“I feel when good things are happening that’s when you know,” senior guard Mei-Lyn Bautista said. “Look how great we can be. It’s about doing that for 40 minutes, and that’s where we’re struggling this season. You can see we couldn’t do it all 40. It’s about learning from this and really it all depends on the momentum. We had good confidence from VCU and I think it translated into this Duquesne game.”
One thing GW is still working on is experience, especially when it comes to players taking on larger roles this season.
A couple of years ago at Duquesne, GW won a 75-40 game in which a group containing four senior starters was able to play with a big lead.
This group was unable to hold the lead and lost some of its offensive composure. Towards game’s end, GW split free throws, making enough down the stretch to come away with a win.
“We haven’t been in the position where we have to figure out how to win with a big lead,” said Rizzotti. “It was an experience they had to go through in order for us to hopefully in a position to handle it better the next time.”
For the second consecutive year, George Washington has three seniors on the team with this season it being Bautista, Mahoney and Anna Savino.
Mahoney may have had the biggest jump both in confidence and play last season but her reputation from those outside of the team was that she was able to make three-point baskets.
Last season, Mahoney made the Atlantic 10 Women’s Basketball All-Championship team not just for her threes but for timely charges, helping run the offense and her leadership.
Sunday against Duquesne, Mahoney did match a career-high with five three-point baskets but also set a career-high with her five blocks.
Even being assessed an unsportsmanlike after a recording one of those five blocks, GW knows it can count on Mahoney.
Savino joined the team this season as a walkon after previously serving as a team manager but has now earned not only a full scholarship but a starting role, one which she has held since the Nov. 18 game against Iona.
Bautista has always been a leader when wearing the buff and blue and this past week was named Atlantic 10 Women’s Basketball Player of the Week.
“I think that Mei has to be pretty close to the top of the list in terms of having everything,” Rizzotti said. “She certainly has talent, I don’t know if she is the most talented but when you combine her vision, ballhandling, leadership, energy and her complete command of our team, she is better than anyone I’ve had. She does everything. She really has no weaknesses, I mean she’s somebody who bought in from the second I got here with the vision I have. We just fit really well together and she strives for perfection every day.”
Bautista’s leadership was again put to the test Sunday and she responded, matching her career-high of six three-point baskets set earlier in the week against VCU.
Even though she turned the ball over down the stretch of that game, her leadership was noticeable whether on the court or bench.
“As a leader it is hard to pick up the younger guys and let them know these are the moments we practice for,” she said. “Good teams like Duquesne are not going to let us win by 20. It’s more of the mental concept and fighting when you are tired and communicating to your team. Today I actually shot the ball well so it helped the team get going. It was not easy, but you stick to it.”
It is no coincidence that both GW and Bautista have seen improvement in conference play
“The A-10 has been so great to me,” she said. “I have played with greats like Jonquel Jones, Caira Washington, Hannah Schaible, Lauren Chase. Then you play against great competition. I learned so much from the game watching film against them and watching my teammates. You take something from your senior class and every year I took something. I’ve played with great players and staff all four years.”
Last year, Bautista and Mahoney had to play just about flawlessly in order for GW to achieve its goals and this year, that has not changed.
“I talked to them about how flawlessly they had to play to win a championship last year and they will have to have games where they play flawlessly and they understand that,” said Rizzotti. “Teams that are really good at the end of the year have seniors who understand that and are inviting the pressure and play underneath it.”
George Washington is currently tied for third and have played two consecutive teams ranked at the top of the conference standings.
Thursday’s noon tilt with Davidson comes against a Wildcats team in solo second place.
Yes, it has been a transition year and plenty of work still needs to be done, but still a third place result right now shows that there are many good signs.
Defensively, GW has been very disruptive with Neila Luma’s presence providing great effort on that side of the ball, while also serving as the team’s leading scorer.
Rizzotti’s current task is making sure her players understand that the roles they currently are in are what is expected of them and that in order to excel that these expectations need to be met if not exceeded.
“A lot of things that are learning experiences but we can’t keep using that,” Rizzotti said. “At some point the season will be over and our sophomores need to be more mature, our seniors need to take complete ownership and do everything right, because they have to for us to win. We just need to feel good about our identity and we are definitely creeping towards that.”
With a challenging non-conference schedule completed and momentum trending upwards, GW knows it will not catch opposing teams off guard.
As a program GW has built a reputation of success and being the defending conference champion, Bautista expects each team to give its best effort.
“A lot of teams want to come in and take that title but as a team we will always fight back,” she said.