In James Howard’s first season as head coach of the Georgetown women’s basketball team, the Hoyas finally broke through with a historic postseason run. Now, in his second year, Howard hopes to use the momentum of last year and a deeper bench to fuel the team and make a run at the top spot in the Big East.
The Hoyas started slow last year but picked up steam as the season went on, dismantling Marquette before beating DePaul in Chicago and taking down Creighton at home. They earned a spot in the Big East semifinals for the first time in 19 years with a win over three-seed Villanova, and continued on to win their first round Women’s National Invitational Tournament game over Delaware.
Howard knew that despite their challenges, last year’s Hoyas were a special bunch. “We started three of the smallest guards in the country in Division I last year and to be able to get postseason play out of it…that was really inspiring for the program,” he said. “Then to beat the top four teams that all went to the NCAA [Tournament], I thought it was a remarkable achievement with the team that we had.”
The success of last year’s team stemmed from now-senior guard Dionna White, who is expected to be a leader on both sides of the court this season. She was first on the team in scoring last year with 18.7 points per game, and she sat atop the Big East with 88 steals, 26 more than the next player in the conference. Her impressive numbers across the board earned her Big East Defensive Player of the Year honors, a spot on the All-Big East First Team last season, and a 2018-19 preseason All-Big East selection.
Despite being the most consistent scorer on the team, and arguably the best defensive player in the conference, White is still looking to improve in those areas this season. Her expectations for herself are simple: “Be more consistent, picking up the intensity on defense, and just looking to get my teammates the ball.”
In her first three years at Georgetown, White was joined in the backcourt by point guard DiDi Burton (COL ’18), who led the team in assists last season. Graduate student guard Mikayla Venson, who primarily played off the ball last season after transferring from the University of Virginia, will fill the hole left by Burton this year. Venson averaged 13.2 points per game and shot .383 from 3-point range in her first year as a Hoya.
White and Burton’s pairing on the court was a stable presence in past years. Now, White has found that the team must relearn that chemistry. “We’re really emphasizing on pushing the ball, getting the ball up the court, and just building that team dynamic where we’re all on the same page,” she said.
White and Venson are the only two starters returning from last season, but the Hoyas are welcoming back graduate student guard Dorothy Adomako, who missed the 2017-18 campaign due to injury. Her return to the team gives the Hoyas both more size and scoring ability at the guard position. Adomako finished second in points in the 2016-17 season, behind White, and was named an All-Big East Honorable Mention.
Howard believes that the addition of Adomako alongside White and Venson makes the team a strong contender for postseason success. “I expect us to compete for a Big East Championship,” he said, regarding how Adomako’s return impacts his team. “You have three solid players like that who have done the work during their college careers at different times; Dorothy being able to go score 30, Mikayla can go score 30, Dionna can score 30.”
White agreed that Adomako will give the team an immediate boost. “Dorothy, she’s gonna do what she’s always done since she came here,” she said. “She’s a scorer. She knows how to score the ball, get buckets, rebound, just bring that extra offensive piece that we didn’t have last year.”
Adding to the lineup of guards is senior Brianna Jones, who is eligible to play this season after transferring from the University of Louisville. Despite the fact that Jones hasn’t played a game in a Hoyas uniform yet, Howard is looking to her to be a vocal leader on the court.
“It’s just like second nature for her,” Howard said. “She is that energizing. She’s the one that gets the other players in the gym. She’s the one that understands every offensive set, every defensive set and is willing to reach out to others and help make them better.”
The returning leadership in the backcourt will balance out a frontcourt which lost center Yazmine Belk (COL ’18) and forward Cynthia Petke (COL ’18). Belk was a consistent starter who added rebounding power, while Petke was a huge presence for the Hoyas last season, finishing second in the Big East in rebounds and second on the team in scoring.
Looking to fill their places will be junior forward Anita Kelava, who, like Jones, is eligible to play after her transfer from the University of Maine. Howard sees Kelava as an offensive weapon who can contribute right away in Petke’s absence. Sophomore center Breonna Mayfield will also look to make a bigger contribution in her second season, after averaging just 4.5 minutes per game last year.
“Mayfield has really picked up her game, in a standpoint of talking and being 6-foot-5, being able to get rebounds for us this year,” Venson said of her teammate. “She’s big on the little things: talking in the paint, helping the next person.”
Sophomore forward Tatianna Thompson and junior guard Morgan Smith, who both contributed significant minutes off the bench last season, will be called on to make a greater impact in their second and third seasons, respectively.
Howard also added six freshmen to his team, creating a far deeper bench than last year’s squad, which typically only played seven players deep. And, according to the senior leaders, the freshman class is already starting to make an contribution.
“Everyone works extremely hard, whether it’s the first group on or the last group,” Adomako said. “We all work really hard, whether it’s in lift, or conditioning, or practice.”
With all the talent on this team, Howard is planning to play with a set starting four and rotate players in the fifth spot. “We are gonna have a swing starter as a five,” he said. “A lot of people probably have never seen that done, but I think I got enough talent in that one position to play to other opponents in their strengths.”
The Hoyas were picked to finish fifth in the Big East Preseason Coaches’ Poll, behind the four teams which made the NCAA tournament last season. They will start their season at Richmond on Nov. 6 before taking on Maryland Eastern Shore (Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference) in their home opener on Nov. 9. Georgetown will likely face its biggest test of non-conference play when it takes on No. 4 Baylor (Big 12) in the South Point Thanksgiving Shootout, before settling into conference play, when it hosts Xavier on Dec. 29.
The Big East will prove a worthy test for this Georgetown team, but with the return of Adomako, a bench that goes up to 13 viable players deep, and the confidence of a team that took down four tournament teams a season ago, nothing is out of reach.
“Team’s goal?” Venson said. “Of course, Big East Championship.”
Image Credits: Margaux Fontaine