The central storyline surrounding the 2019-20 Georgetown women’s basketball team isn’t who’s on campus with the team. Rather, it’s who isn’t: their three now-graduated leaders who scored nearly three-quarters of the team’s points a season ago and practically willed the Hoyas to 19 wins, their highest total since 2011.
When he was hired in the summer of 2017, Head Coach James Howard inherited a team with talents such as Dorothy Adomako, Dionna White, and Mikayla Venson already on board. But Howard also realized that he and his staff would have to quickly restock the cupboards—and it would take some creativity to do so. With just two full recruiting classes under his belt, Howard has already shown a penchant for exploring every avenue to ensure the Hoyas put the best possible product on the floor. Entering this season, Georgetown’s roster includes players from 10 different U.S. states and two foreign countries, with four transfers among their ranks.
Replacing the scoring of Adomako, White, and Venson will take a total team effort and then some for the Hoyas, who don’t return a player who averaged more than 5 points per game. Among those expected to fill the void are graduate student guard Brianna Jones; sophomore forward Jillian Archer, an arrival from the University of Southern California whose availability hinges on the outcome of a pending waiver with the NCAA; and Graceann Bennett, a freshman forward unearthed from upstate New York who Howard said, “with development, could eventually become one of the best post players to come through Georgetown.”
Leaving no stone unturned, Howard found two key cogs for his program’s engine hailing from Eastern Europe early in his tenure. For Nikola Kovacikova and Anita Kelava, the journey from Slovakia and Croatia, respectively, to playing Big East basketball has been one filled with triumphs, setbacks, and unforgettable memories.
Kovacikova, a sophomore guard, comes from a basketball family—both her parents and her brother play. She recalls begging to get in on the action.
“I was like 10, and there wasn’t any basketball club in our city so I told [my parents], ‘Can you please be our coaches and make a club in the city?’” Kovacikova recalled. “Eventually, they were like ‘OK, we’ll be your coaches, we’ll make a club.’ I was trying four or five different sports, but I kind of always knew it would be just basketball.”
Kovacikova saw her rising stardom take her around the globe in tournaments, and eventually earned her a spot on the Slovakian youth national team. Among her favorite memories was playing in 3-on-3 tournaments for her high school.
“We went to Thailand for a world championship between high schools, and we got into the championship when nobody expected anything from us, and we ended up winning the world championship,” Kovacikova said. “Playing with my under-20 national team, we went to Israel and ended up placing in second, which allowed us to stay in the A division. The whole tournament was just amazing.”
Howard, who noted that his staff invests heavily in subscription services with a finger on the pulse of the global high school basketball scene, said the U20 FIBA tournament in Israel was likely what put Kovacikova on the GU staff’s radar.
Kelava, a senior forward, brings a similar wealth of experience to the team. A fixture down low for the Hoyas last season, Kelava said she truly committed herself to playing basketball when she hit her growth spurt.
“For me, I started off doing a lot of sports because my mom wanted me to just be active and try different things and stuff, and it really built my character,” she said. “And then, with time, I just grew a lot, and my mom was like ‘why don’t you try basketball?’”
Kelava said she attended a high school in Croatia that placed a high degree of emphasis on athletics and academics alike, a quality she appreciates in Georgetown as well. For her high school team’s championship match, the whole school was excused from class the following day if they showed up to support the team.
From there, Kelava would also suit up for her youth national team. She said: “It comes with a lot of pride, and it’s very emotional as well because your whole family is watching the games, knows what’s happening, and it’s a very big thing to be in a conversation and say, ‘Yeah, and also I’m playing for the national team.’ That’s really big—you’re carrying your country on your back.”
She signed with the University of Maine ahead of the 2016-17 season, where she started 18 games and led the Black Bears in blocks as a freshman. Kelava then transferred to Georgetown and had to sit out a season due to NCAA transfer regulations.
Both Kelava and Kovacikova described their first year on campus as a trying one. For Kelava, who will defer a final season of eligibility to be used as a graduate student, watching the game from the bench was difficult.
“I think it’s a good rule for women in basketball because you can go get your master’s degree, but you really lose touch with the game, so that was hard for me,” Kelava remarked. “But I grew close with the seniors that just left and all the people on the team. It was a hard year, but they got me through it.”
Kovacikova didn’t spend much time on the bench, but she still found challenges in her first year at an American university.
“The different cultures, the different habits here were a huge culture shock, and I think also to adjust to school with basketball, because basketball takes a lot of time, wasn’t easy in the beginning,” Kovacikova recalled. “But after a couple months, I felt like I found a great balance, and I’m still trying to keep it up.”
Howard and the rest of the team, though, couldn’t be happier with the development of the two women, which became evident as last season wore on. Kelava was selected as a team captain for 2018-19 despite never having played a game for the Hoyas before, while Kovacikova started eight games down the stretch and won the program’s Newcomer of the Year Award. Both players certainly struck the athletic-academic balance Kovacikova alluded to, earning recognition as Big East All-Academics.
Howard credits the FIBA basketball infrastructure in Europe for advancing Kelava and Kovacikova’s development well beyond their years.
“They bring a different work ethic,” he said. “They practice hard every day. They come prepared, and it’s great because they’re no-nonsense type of players.”
This season, both players say they’re fully settled in at Georgetown. Laughing, Kovacikova said she and Kelava have gotten along well as roommates this semester after growing especially close toward the end of last school year. Personally, she cites taking up a leadership role at point guard and looking for her shot more as two personal goals for the season. And with White, Adomako, and Venson almost exclusively operating in the ball-handling role for Georgetown last season, Kovacikova is keenly aware of the challenges that will meet her in 2019-20. What do the Blue & Gray have their collective sights set on?
“To become champions in our Big East,” Kovacikova says. “Which would be hard, but I really think it’s doable.”
That feat, which Georgetown hasn’t achieved since 1996-97, will require exceptional performances from all 10 states, four previous colleges, and two foreign countries represented on the Hoyas’s roster. Big East title or not, Kelava and Kovacikova are case studies one and two that Howard is building something sustainable on the Hilltop.