The Georgetown women’s basketball team is determined to remain resilient. As James Howard enters his third year as head coach, the Hoyas look to overcome their lack of standout veterans. The team hopes their new freshman and transfer recruits will provide valuable contributions to the team and thrive when given ample opportunity.
The Hoyas were able to make runs in the 2018-19 Big East Tournament and Women’s National Invitation Tournament, beating Villanova to reach the semifinals of the BET in Chicago and continuing their strong play in the WNIT, advancing to the Elite Eight.
The team scored 61.8 points per game last season, with Dionna White, Mikayla Venson, and Dorothy Adomako combining to average 44.1 points per game. Unfortunately for the Hoyas, all three players graduated in the spring, leaving them with a shortage of proven scorers. Georgetown will also lose senior guard Morgan Smith, a team leader and valuable presence inside the paint, to a medical redshirt year.
After losing its top three scorers, and with only one year until national threat UConn rejoins the Big East, the Georgetown women’s basketball team will enter a period of rebuilding during the 2019-20 season. Howard is well aware of how this loss in veteran leadership will affect the team.
“I’m trying to find someone to put their feet in those shoes,” he said. “We’re going to try to piece together a solid season. When you lose so much power and experience—that’s the key: experience—you don’t have those expectations.”
When it comes to overall team leadership, Howard only had to say two words: “Brianna Jones.” Jones transferred to Georgetown from the University of Louisville as a junior in 2017, and she will be playing her last season for the Hoyas as a graduate student guard. Entering her third year with the program, and serving as the Hoyas’ highest returning scorer this season, Jones carries an unmistakable sense of authority and acts as a mentor for the other players.
“We kind of had this vision in our minds about how we want to play this year,” Jones said. “I think it’s going to be more of a collective group that you’re going to see this year which will be exciting to play with.”
Down four starters from last season, the team will look to its underclassmen and new recruits to form a more unified offense. Sophomore guards Tayanna Jones, Nikola Kovacikova, and Cassandra Gordon, specifically, will be expected to play a much greater offensive role.
“We need to be really consistent,” Gordon said. “We don’t have Dionna and Dorothy, who were pretty consistent for the most part. So we have to make those big time shots when it matters.”
While Howard acknowledged that the lack of experienced scorers would place much more emphasis on the bench this season, he is cautious about relying on depth.
“When you see bodies,” he said, “you think you’re deep. But until you actually get into play and your results show up, you’re not as deep as your numbers look.”
The bench’s main weapons this season will likely come in the form of experienced upperclassmen like junior forward Tatiana Thompson and junior center Breonna Mayfield. However, Howard has no problem giving new recruits the center stage, as outstanding freshman forward Graceann Bennett will mostly start in the season opener.
“[Bennett] could eventually, with development, be one of the best post players to come through Georgetown,” Howard said. “She’s very tough, very skilled in a lot of ways. But she has the potential to be really good.”
Recent transfers, sophomore forward Jillian Archer and graduate student guard Taylor Barnes, will also provide welcome assets and added experience to the team.
Barnes has already been voted a team captain, and will use her four years of collegiate basketball experience and impressive track record playing for the University of Memphis, having started in 76 of her 84 games with the Tigers, to become a key facet of the team’s leadership. Barnes averaged 9.3 points per game last year for Memphis, making her the only player on the Hoya roster to have averaged more than 4.5 points per game in the 2018-19 season.
“Just having her on the court kind of brings a calming effect,” Jones said about her fellow graduate student guard. “She kind of calms everybody down. And she can get a bucket whenever you want.”
Jones also praised the leadership of those in the grades below her. “I think from a leadership standpoint, we’ve had some seniors step up and especially some returners step up and kind of let the freshmen know how things are done here.”
One of those seniors is forward Anita Kelava, who transferred to Georgetown from the University of Maine as a sophomore and, like Jones, is a team captain entering her third year with the program. Kelava’s main asset is her defensive prowess, as she led the team with a total of 54 blocks over her two seasons at Georgetown.
Playing with tenacity on defense will need to be a significant part of the Hoyas’ identity this season. Last season, the Hoyas’ 61.8 points per game meant they scored the least out of any team in the Big East. However, the team also only allowed 60.1 points per game, making them the second-best defensive squad in the conference. This season, Howard is aiming to lower that mark to 55.
“Always defense,” he said regarding the team’s identity this season. “When you lose, again, as much offense—power—that we lost, we’re going to probably have to be very gritty defensively.”
In addition to Kelava, Archer will also provide a spark on the defensive end. “She’s probably the best rebounder in the conference,” Gordon said of her fellow sophomore. The team is waiting to see if the NCAA will approve a waiver allowing Archer to play this season, instead of sitting out for a year as most transfers are required to do.
The circumstantial odds are certainly more stacked against the Hoyas than they have been in recent seasons. While the Hoyas are realistic about their prospects, they also remain optimistic. Jones wants to repeat the previous year’s conference and postseason tournament success. For Howard, the goal is simple: “If we score the ball, I think we can sneak back up there and climb the ranks again.”