How the George Washington players wrote the script for a big rivalry win

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 24: Head Coach Jennifer Rizzotti of the George Washington Colonials talks to her team during a time out in the game against the Georgetown Hoyas at Charles E. Smith Athletic Center on November 24, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 24: Head Coach Jennifer Rizzotti of the George Washington Colonials talks to her team during a time out in the game against the Georgetown Hoyas at Charles E. Smith Athletic Center on November 24, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images) /

GW wins a 5-point nail-biter at home versus George Mason

WASHINGTON, DC – When George Mason faced George Washington in women’s basketball on Saturday afternoon, the game seemingly had all the storylines. It was a Revolutionary Rivalry game, a rematch, and a key game in Atlantic 10 conference play.

It was also GW’s Pink game to honor cancer survivors and raise money for a cure. The Charles E. Smith Center looked rather festive, starting with the Colonials’ new home uniforms—white with a heavy dose of pink accents—and matching pink shoes.

Even the officials’ whistles were pink.

Leading up to the game, the GW players had filmed videos in which they talked about someone close to them who had battled cancer, and they wore customized warm-up shirts on Saturday with that person’s name on the back. In the videos, “most of [the players] talked about how that person gave them strength,” Rizzotti said after the game, “… whether it’s fighting or overcoming or just their attitude that they have when things were hard. And so I said, ‘Well, then let that be the person you think about today when things get hard. … Find a way for that person to give you the strength you need to overcome adversity.’”

There were plenty of tough moments against George Mason, which had already beaten GW a month ago at home. On Saturday, the Colonials trailed by five points at halftime despite a no-look buzzer-beater by graduate student Ariel Stephenson, and Mason star Nicole Cardaño-Hillary had 13 first-half points.

But GW pulled out a 62-57 win with a dominant fourth quarter. The Colonials won the period by nine points and had six offensive rebounds in that quarter alone. Forwards Alexandra Maund and Mayowa Taiwo combined for 12 points and eight rebounds in the final ten minutes (and 27 and 17 overall). Cardaño-Hillary had the game’s only double-double with 19 points and 10 rebounds but also finished with eight turnovers.

In addition to the inspiration GW’s players drew from the people on their warm-up shirts, they were also prepared for the tough moments because, for the first time this season, they had devised the game plan themselves. “I really did put all the responsibility on them,” Rizzotti said, “… and I really thought they took a high level of ownership.” The players were also tasked with planning Friday’s practice to get themselves ready to execute their game plan.

“We literally all got together and watched film,” Maund explained. “… It was like a two-hour, three-hour process of us coming together and trying to work together and listening to everyone’s ideas. I think a big thing that has been consistent throughout this entire year is building our chemistry as a team and working together and collaborating because we have so many new pieces. And so it was just another exercise of us coming together and trying to make sure that everyone’s voice is heard.”

Taiwo added, “We’ve been focusing on the phrase ‘Own it.’ And I think in that two to three hours, we all realized how much responsibility was on us now that we had to plan out practice and our game plan to win the game. And I think everybody stepped up.”

Rizzotti played 12 players in the win, which she said she cannot do on a consistent basis but was important to her on Saturday given the players’ investment in the game plan. “If they’re going to be part of the planning process, then they need to be part of the game process,” Rizzotti explained. In the team’s previous two games, Rizzotti had experimented with a five-in, five-out substitution pattern, and she started out with that on Saturday before mixing and matching. In all, ten of the 12 players played at least 11 minutes and took at least one shot.

Rizzotti had hoped that the exercise would help the players commit to the game plan and hold each other accountable, and both she and Maund said the team accomplished that. In addition, Rizzotti saw an opportunity to make adjustments of her own: “I also wanted to be more supportive of [the players] and show them that I trusted them, that they are smart enough, they don’t need me to tell them how to beat George Mason. They could figure that out on their own. … I believe in them, I trust them, and I want to give them confidence, and I hadn’t felt like I’ve been doing that consistently.”

GW has another rematch coming up on Wednesday at Dayton, which beat GW by 16 points on January 22. Rizzotti plans to have the players write the game plan again, with help from the Presidents’ Day holiday that gives them a day off from classes and extra time to watch film.

But before the players could turn the page on George Mason and begin preparing for Dayton, they had one final obligation: sign autographs for the kids who were in the stands. Rizzotti linked those interactions with young fans to the broader significance of the annual Pink game.

“It can tend to be a little bit emotional when you’re playing for something bigger than yourself,” she reflected. “… I don’t want to be over-emotional about it, but I want today to be more than just about winning or losing a basketball game. … [I want the players] to understand that they’re also an inspiration to others.”

Referencing the film session earlier in the week, Rizzotti added, “I’m just really proud of what they represent as people and that they were able to come together, find a way together, to really get this win on their own.”

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