Over his first three years, Georgetown women’s basketball coach James Howard has presided over significant highs and lows. From a tantalizing conference tournament run in the 2018-19 season to a difficult 5-25 record in a rebuilding 2019-20 season, the Hoyas have faced significant adversity. Amid the chaos COVID-19 has unleashed across college sports, it appears basketball will be fortunate enough to return for 2020-21. In the face of off-court uncertainties, preparations are well underway for a season that brings significant on the court questions as well. Once again, the team faces turnover and will need new contributors to step up in order to be more competitive this year.
It does appear that the team will be able to play. Though a full schedule has not yet been released, a December slate of Big East conference games has been announced. The Hoyas play at St. John’s on Friday, December 4, followed by a home game against Creighton on Sunday, December 6. Their final two games of the calendar year will be on the road Saturday, December 19 against DePaul and a final home game against Seton Hall on Tuesday, December 22. Any potential contests beyond that have yet to be announced, and schedules are subject to change. In recent days, the Ivy League cancelled its basketball season, and the Big East’s decision to announce only its December schedule underscores the ongoing uncertainty of the season going forward.
The schedule is not the only source of doubt for this season. The Hoyas face the challenge of a significant team overhaul, having lost a staggering seven of nine leading scorers to graduation or transfer, including all three of their top scorers from a year ago. Only three players on the roster registered more fifty points during the entire 2019-20 season: graduate forward Anita Kelava (197 points, 6.6 points per game), junior forward/center Shanniah Wright (97 points, 4.2 points per game), and sophomore forward Graceann Bennett (58 points, 2.5 points per game). For a team that struggled on the offensive end last season, scoring only 56.9 points per game, there is a massive void to be filled.
Approaching this challenging season, Coach Howard is clear about his lessons from 2019-20 for future success in the Big East. In a Big East media appearance, he emphasized hard work and team unity as keys. “You can never stop working hard enough…we must be a team in order to have any success. I think we figured that without a team of 15 players or however many players you may have together towards that common goal, it will make it difficult to have any success in the Big East Conference.”
As they attempt to improve on their grim 5-25 (2-16 Big East) record from last season, the Hoyas have a stable of new faces ready to take advantage of the significant opportunities for scoring and playing time. The guard positions especially will be a key storyline to see who may emerge from the pack. With only one returning guard – senior Lexi Kimball (who last year appeared in five games, no starts) – the Hoyas must depend on five newcomers, including four first years, to step up.
Likely to play a role early may be sophomore guard Taylia Stimpson, a transfer from Southern Idaho. A three year starter in high school, Stimpson concluded her first collegiate season with an eye-catching second half in which she emerged as a full-time starter, averaged 11.1 points per game, and delivered several marquee performances (including three games scoring twenty points or more). Her experience may make her the dean of the Hoyas’ young guard rotation, though she will share their challenge of adjusting to Big East competition.
Though unproven, the first-year Hoyas bring an impressive array of high school achievements as they seek to prove their games at the college level. Guard Teaghan Flaherty, a four-year starter at her high school in Rye, New York and a McDonald’s All-American Nominee, averaged 19.0 points, 4.0 rebounds, 3.0 steals, and 3.0 assists per game, totaling over a thousand points during her high school career. Another strong contender for playing time is guard Yasmin Ott, who won two state titles and made second team all-state at her high school in Little Rock, Arkansas. She scored 14.0 points, 5 assists, 2 steals and 2 rebounds per game on her way to being a nationally ranked prospect by several outlets. Guard Kelsey Ransom from South River, New Jersey, displayed a balanced high school game, averaging 17 points and 7 rebounds per game. In addition to being named second team all-state and several conference honors, she also was viewed as a strong defensive player, another area where the Hoyas need improvement. The final member of the first year class is guard Jazmyn Harmon from Brentwood, Tennessee. Harmon brings significant experience and leadership, having been a four year starter and two time captain while earning numerous local accolades. There will be less time in this condensed season for newcomers to adjust to the college level, but the open spots ensure that these first years will all have opportunities to claim meaningful minutes from day one.
With an uncertain guard rotation, the Hoyas will lean on a more experienced frontcourt that returns several key contributors. Graduate student forward Anita Kelava, who averaged over six points per game a year ago, is likely to play a central role. Having played previously on the Croatian National team (Kelava is from Zagreb, Croatia) and at the University of Maine before transferring to Georgetown two years ago, Kelava enters this season ensconced as one of the team’s leaders on and off the court. As team captain and the only returning starter, she will be a key voice of experience. In addition to being one of the team’s more efficient offensive contributors, having shot nearly 43% last season, Kelava is a defensive stalwart, averaging 7.4 rebounds a game and blocking 53 shots a year ago.
Likely to take on an expanded role alongside Kelava is sophomore Graceann Bennett. A highly touted prospect who exceeded 2,000 points and 1,500 rebounds in high school, Bennett proved a useful piece off the bench in her first collegiate campaign. Having averaged 2.5 points and 3.3 rebounds while playing only 12 minutes per game, Bennett stands to take on an expanded role as a scorer and rebounder this season. As a highly talented post player, her continued development will be important for the Hoyas’ improvement.
Also likely to see significant roles in the Hoyas’ rotation are junior forward/center Shanniah Wright and senior center Breonna Mayfield, each of whom played off the bench last year. Worth monitoring as well will be the role of two incoming transfers. Forward graduate transfer Taylor Baur, a graduate transfer, played 69 games (29 starts) over three years at Princeton. She played an expanded role on the Tigers last year, starting in twenty-seven games on a team that had a 26-1 record in the pandemic-shortened campaign. Her productive experience on a team that twice went to the NCAA tournament will be a unique advantage on a Georgetown roster coming off a difficult season and significant turnover. Forward Jillian Archer, a transfer from USC, averaged 2.8 points and 3.1 rebounds per game over eighteen games for the Trojans. Archer’s collegiate experience may help her seize a role during her eagerly anticipated first season on the court for the Hoyas.
Beyond lingering questions surrounding the schedule, the Hoyas enter 2020-21 looking to rebound from last year’s subpar showing. Though their record shows a need for improvement across the board, increasing scoring efficiency from last season’s 35% shooting will be key on the offensive end. Defense was rightly identified as a key concern entering last season, and the Hoyas proceeded to give up 65 points per game and allowed opponents to shoot over 40%. It will be critical to show improvement entering a second straight season where defense is a paramount concern.
Positionally, the guard rotation will be an interesting storyline with a group of almost entirely new faces. Whether the Hoyas can find productive backcourt contributors from this class of first-year guards will be key for the team’s future growth. Expect the frontcourt, a group with greater continuity, to be key contributors. A season ago, the Hoyas were near even on rebounds, averaging 37.7 rebounds per game to opponents’ 38.8, a narrow margin that could prove a baseline from which to improve this year. Combined with 4.0 blocks per game last year, building success in the paint could prove a natural path to remedy defensive shortcomings.
In such an unpredictable season with so many new faces, projections are more difficult than ever. The Big East has gotten even tougher this year with the return of national powerhouse UConn to the conference. Despite facing an uphill battle, last years’ Hoyas lost a number of close games, perhaps indicating their record reflected an unhealthy measure of poor luck. With myriad opportunities for players to take on new roles and rise to the challenge of competing in the Big East, Coach Howard and the Hoyas have their work cut out for them, but they certainly aren’t shying away from the task.