Last Saturday afternoon in McDonough Arena, the Georgetown Chimes walked out to midcourt to belt out the National Anthem while the Georgetown women’s basketball team prepared to take on last year’s national runner-up, Louisville.
Looking around McDonough, the walls of the arena revealed a stark difference between the Georgetown men’s and women’s basketball programs.
The north side of the gym is covered in the NBA jerseys of Hoya legends like Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning, and Roy Hibbert. The east and west walls are lined with banners honoring the men’s multiple Big East titles and Final Four appearances.
The women’s accomplishments are more meager by comparison. In the southeast corner of the gym, a mere four banners hang from the wall. Two are from 1993—Big East Co-Champions and a Sweet Sixteen appearance banner—one is a 1997 Big East Division Champions banner, and the last is a 2009 National Invitational Tournament Quarterfinal banner.
But despite the differences in history, this season, the women’s team is reminiscent of their male counterparts, a fact that for the most part has gone unnoticed by a good portion of the Georgetown population.
The No. 19 Hoyas (16-2, 5-0 Big East) have dealt with being unknown for quite a while.
“My freshman year, we were nobodies,” junior forward Monica McNutt said. “People didn’t even know there was a Georgetown basketball team. Women’s team, excuse me. They know about the boys’ team.”
This year’s success hasn’t exactly brought the program the respect it may deserve.
“It’s still not great now,” sixth year head coach Terri Williams-Flournoy said. “I think there’s a lot going on here in the Washington Metropolitan area. But you know, it’s more of, you know, people don’t know. They’ve always assumed that Georgetown women’s basketball was not that good of a program. So the stereotype that we’re dealing with is they don’t know until they see us play.”
The team resorts to any promotional tactics it can to raise awareness. Students are offered free pizza at games, starters throw t-shirts to fans after being announced, and players sign autographs after games. Those techniques, along with the improvement of the team, have led to larger crowds at recent games.
“It’s gotten a whole lot better this year,” sophomore forward Tia Magee said. “You’ll see the crowds getting bigger, and bigger, and people actually recognizing your face and telling you good job and good game.”
The women are finally starting to make a name for themselves, riding a program-record 15-game winning streak into the national rankings and a tie at the top of the Big East standings. It’s quite a start for a team that hasn’t finished higher than ninth in the conference since the Big East expanded to 16 teams in 2005.
The only explanation for their success is that Williams-Flournoy has finally gotten the players who can play with her—and with each other.
When Williams-Flournoy took the helm in August 2004, she was already two years behind.
“We were very late recruiting,” Williams-Flournoy said. “I got the job in August, so we were almost two years behind in recruiting, and in this business right here you have to be two years ahead, not two years behind.”
Williams-Flournoy still didn’t mind taking over the program. Previously, she was an assistant coach at Georgetown between 1992 and 1996, and she went to high school in nearby Hampton, Virginia.
“Georgetown’s always been my dream job,” she said. “I was here as an assistant coach and always wanted to come back close to home, so as soon as the job opened up, I just started making phone calls.”
In Williams-Flournoy’s first three years, the program had trouble winning. One of the key reasons was a lack of consistency in her assistant coaching staff. Georgetown’s women’s sports full-time assistant coaches make only $38,994 a year—a number that, coupled with the District of Columbia’s high cost of living, makes it hard to retain a consistent coaching staff.
“It’s hard to get everyone to say exactly what you want them to say, it’s hard to go out and hire someone new every year and teach them over again. That’s definitely the key,” Williams-Flournoy said.
Now every member of Williams-Flournoy’s staff has been at Georgetown for at least two seasons. Not coincidentally, the team has improved drastically.
Last season, the Hoyas made an unexpected quarterfinal run in the NIT, and this season, the Hoyas cracked the Associated Press Top 25 for the first time since 1993.
The Hoyas have also thrived because Williams-Flournoy is no longer lagging two years behind. Along with team recruitment coordinator Keith Brown, she has brought in a group of players who fit all the necessary roles of a successful team. It is this rare completeness that has allowed the Hoyas to break into the upper echelon of the Big East.
“It’s hard because you put a team together and you think about where everybody’s going to go, and it changes,” Williams-Flournoy said. “We didn’t recruit [sophomore forward] Tia Magee to be our starting five. It’s just how the team has gone and the way we’ve played. And everybody has just bought into their role.”
Williams definitely could not have predicted how well her recruits would get along with each other. The Hoyas’ chemistry is as important to their success as anything they do on the court.
McNutt swears that the Hoyas should have their own reality show.
“We’re hysterical,” McNutt said. “You have never met a group of girls who get along better. We have so many divas on this team, it’s just so entertaining.”
When asked who the biggest diva on the team was, McNutt didn’t hesitate.
“Sid. Sidney. Sidney Wilson. Diva extraordinaire.”
Wilson, a 6-foot-6 freshman from Silver Spring, Md., continued the jibe, faux-attacking McNutt back.
“Well, I think that Monica has no right to speak, because we both are in competition with each other for the diva role,” Wilson said in her best diva voice. “I don’t know who I would put first. We’re definitely tied. I think it’s a tie.”
Although she wouldn’t win any competition with her teammates, if there is any one Hoya who has cause to act like a diva, it is star freshman Ta’Shauna “Sugar” Rodgers.
Williams-Flournoy and Brown had already proven to be excellent recruiters in spite of running a Big East program located in ACC country, but Rodgers was their biggest get yet. The 5-foot-11 guard currently leads the Big East in scoring, averaging 18.4 points a game. She has also won four Big East Rookie of the Week awards, the most in the conference.
In the first half against Providence last Tuesday night, Rodgers demonstrated just how advanced her game is. With a defender running up to her at full speed, she caught the ball in transition. Miraculously, Rodgers seemed to slow the game down—she stood upright, looked at the charging defender, and stopped her momentum on the spot. Then she proceeded to make a hard crossover, faking out the defender and opening a clear path to the basket for an easy layup. It was a subtle move, but only a few people can pull it off.
While Rodgers might be the centerpiece of the program’s recruiting over the last few years, Williams-Flournoy has placed the perfect complements around her.
Senior Shanice Fuller and sophomore Rubylee Wright have taken charge of the point guard position. Both players excel while playing with entirely different styles.
“Shanice is more of a true type point guard,” Williams-Flournoy said. “She does push it in transition, she kicks it ahead, she wants to run the team. She wants to make sure everybody’s in the right position. Rubylee is just going, just going 100 miles an hour.”
Wright is generously listed at 5-foot-3 and is by far the smallest player on the floor at all times. But what she lacks in size she more than makes up in energy and an ability to swing the game in the Hoyas direction. Against Providence, the Hoyas let a 21-point lead shrink to four. In a four possession span, Wright had an assist to senior forward Jaleesa Butler, caught a Rodgers airball and laid it in on a reverse layup, and hit McNutt in transition to bring the Hoyas’ lead back up to 12.
“I really don’t think about [my size] because I have a brother that’s 6-5, so I used to always play against bigger people. So it’s never been a thing,” Wright said. “It’s just something that I’m used to, and when I get on the court with bigger people there’s no difference because I’ve seen them before.“
Georgetown is also undersized in the frontcourt, but the athletic tandem of Magee and senior forward Jaleesa Butler fit perfectly into the Hoyas’ transition offense. Magee is an especially troubling mismatch for opposing teams.
“For her size, she’s playing a position that makes her extremely tough to guard,” Williams-Flournoy explained. “She’s our starting five. You think of most fives, they’re not as athletic as she is, they’re not as quick as she is, they can’t play inside out. She fits into what we want to do here at Georgetown.”
Of course, what they want to do is run, and the success of any transition attack is predicated on communication. Fortunately for the Hoyas, they have developed strong connections both on and off the court.
“I just think that’s why we get along so well,” Wilson said. “We’re able to communicate because not only do we have communication on the floor, but we have communication off the floor with school work, our personal lives, so it just makes it easier and translates onto the court.”
The Hoyas clearly have a special bond. Before games, the Hoyas lock arm-in-arm behind each other’s back before the National Anthem is sung. They are always talking to one another during games and helping each other out. Off the court, the team is all smiles.
The Hoyas are constantly smiling, laughing, and being “goofy,” as Williams-Flournoy put it.
“You would think we’ve been around each other our whole lives,” Magee said. “I think our team is really unique. I can’t see any other group of girls getting along the way that we do. We all are really like sisters.”
It says a lot that the team’s vocal leader is little-used senior guard Kenya Kirkland. Kirkland embodies the spirit of the Hoyas—she holds everyone accountable at all times.
“Our team, we have an understanding that when you’re wrong, you’re wrong,” Kirkland said. “It really doesn’t matter if you’re a leader or not, and I think that’s a good thing about our team, because we hold each other accountable.”
That accountability includes keeping up the aggressive style of play that the Hoyas bring to the court. Magee says that practices sometimes get so aggressive that “we forget that we’re teammates sometimes.”
“I’ll tell you what—this team does not do well with walk through,” Williams-Flournoy said. “Let’s walk through it—no. Everything we do has to be live scrimmages and competitive. If it’s not competitive, it’s not as fun to them.”
The Hoyas competiveness never wanes, but they are susceptible to a run from the opposing team. Last Tuesday against Providence, the Hoyas let their 21 point lead dwindle down to 4 before they turned on the jets again. Last Saturday against Louisville, the same thing happened. The Hoyas let a 16 point lead become a one-point deficit late in the second half before coming back for a four-point victory.
For now, the Hoyas’ aggressive style of play and tough mentality allows them to regain the lead once they give it up. Later in the season, this might become a little dangerous.
“We’re going to continue to work on it and we understand that if we continue to give away leads, we not be able to pull it away down the stretch. I mean, it’s the Big East,” McNutt said.
Besides giving away leads, the Hoyas aggressiveness can be dangerous in other ways.
That aggression might have gotten the best of the Hoyas when they got in a pregame scuffle with Louisville. The Washington Post reported that about an hour before tip-off, an unnamed Hoya tripped a Louisville player, setting off a melee. No penalties were issued at the time because the fight took place more than fifteen minutes before game time, but Georgetown suspended two players for the team’s upcoming game against DePaul this Saturday. Georgetown Sports Information declined to release the names of the suspended players.
Despite the recent altercation, don’t expect the Hoyas to turn down the heat anytime soon.
“I don’t think that you can ever be too aggressive,” Williams-Flournoy said before the fight occurred. “Y’all might think when we foul we’re being too aggressive. When we don’t foul, that’s the problem.”
The team’s aggression is mimicked by their head coach. Williams-Flournoy, a kind, southern lady, puts on a tougher face when she’s coaching. The Hoyas know that they cannot make mistakes without being held accountable and facing the consequences.
The Hoyas know that they cannot make mistakes without being held accountable and facing the consequences.
“It’s called running,” Williams-Flournoy said.
The coach’s intense style is conducive to her game strategy—pressure defense.
“Wow,” McNutt said when asked about the focus Williams-Flournoy puts on defense. “If we practice for three hours … we work on defense for two hours and fifteen minutes.”
The 6-foot guard talks with an upbeat certainty, a sureness that turns into a more-than-confident swagger when she steps on the floor. Her swagger is the crux of the Hoyas defense, and the heart of the entire team.
The Hoyas offer a multitude of different press offerings, all of them involving constant ball pressure and traps designed to force a turnover. The 1-2-2, the Hoyas most frequently used press, depends on the skill of the “1,” the point woman in the press.
That’s where McNutt comes in.
“She’s absolutely perfect [for the point]. She’s long, lanky. You know I wouldn’t want to start as a point guard facing her right away. I wouldn’t want to do that,” Williams-Flournoy said, chuckling.
The anatomy of a basketball team is sometimes hard to grasp. It’s impossible for a coach to know in advance how players will play with each other on the court, what roles they will fulfill, and how they will get along with each other off the court.
In this instance, Williams-Flournoy didn’t plan for every player to have the roles they currently have for the Hoyas. She didn’t know that the team would bond so tightly. But somehow, she created the perfect atmosphere for this year’s team.
The Hoyas are more than a basketball team. They’re a sisterhood.
“I think it’s very, very important because I’ve been here four years and I know the difference between team chemistry and not,” Kirkland said. “In the previous years, we weren’t as close as we were and it would reflect in our game. Now, I feel like everybody’s my sister, and that’s something I couldn’t say two or three years ago. It’s just a good thing to feel like it’s my family because now on the court it’s easier to play with them, it’s easier to talk because you have that understanding off the court.”
And as a family, the Hoyas are going to places they’ve never been before. Just ask Monica McNutt.
“You know, we had a pow-wow with our coaches today and we just go, honestly, we’re the only ones who can stop us,” McNutt said. “Who knows? The sky’s the limit.”
She might be exaggerating. But if the Hoyas keep up the success they’ve had this season, McDonough Arena will be hanging another women’s banner this season.