George Washington women's basketball team struggles as injuries mount

By Kathy Orton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 9, 2010; D05

George Washington has been the area's most consistently successful women's basketball program for the past 18 years. Maryland may have won a national championship in 2006, but that was preceded by a 12-season stretch in which the Terrapins went to the NCAA tournament only four times and had five losing seasons. No program has been as good, year in and year out, as the Colonials.

Until this season.

GW (3-9) has lost nine of its last 10 games, a run that includes a program-record eight-game losing streak. Unless the Colonials, who open their Atlantic 10 season Saturday at Smith Center against Dayton, make a remarkable turnaround, it is likely they will wind up with their first losing record since the 1988-89 season, ending their streak of 10 consecutive postseason bids.

"We're only at 12 games, [but] I feel like we've been through three seasons already," GW Coach Mike Bozeman said.

Bozeman, in his second season, had the unenviable task of taking over a program built into a powerhouse by Joe McKeown, who is now trying to do the same thing at Northwestern. McKeown was 441-154 at GW and took the Colonials to 15 NCAA tournaments, including four trips to the round of 16 and one to the round of eight.

Though Bozeman -- who was McKeown's assistant for three years, calls McKeown his mentor and "a future Hall of Famer," and continues to seek his advice -- wants to put his own stamp on the program, he has been hampered by circumstances. Last season, he felt a responsibility to the seniors to continue McKeown's way of playing because he didn't want the coaching change to disrupt them.

Bozeman knew this season was going to be rough because of the team's youth. As he likes to say, "If you're not a freshman on my team, you're a sophomore." But then the injuries started to pile up, leaving GW with only eight healthy players.

Ivy Abiona, a third-year forward, is the team's only upperclassman. She is out for the season after tearing her anterior cruciate ligament during the summer, the second knee injury of her career. Starting point guard Danni Jackson, a freshman from Forest Park High School, broke her leg during a 78-47 loss to Michigan State on Nov. 27. Before she was sidelined, GW was averaging 70 points per game and was 2-1. Without her, the Colonials are averaging 52 points per game and are 1-8.

Forward-guard Tara Booker, an Atlantic 10 all-rookie team selection last season, tried playing with chronic knee pain, a result of offseason meniscus surgery, but eventually she, too, went to the bench.

"I have been in this racket a long time, and I've never seen the injuries, and to key players, too," GW Athletic Director Jack Kvancz said.

In order to have enough players to practice, GW's assistant coaches fill in. Because Bozeman wants to save his players' energy for the games, practices have been curtailed, even though the young players need more teaching, not less, in order to improve.

"I don't have the luxury of them making freshman mistakes but I have to give room for that anyway," Bozeman said. "I'm learning that during this tough time right here, it's made me better [as a coach] because I'm learning how to do different things to get the results that I want."

Though it would be easy for all involved to use the injuries as an excuse for the poor record, no one is.

"The bar is still high," said sophomore guard Tiana Myers (McNamara). Coach "still expects so much from us."

And in spite of the team's win-loss record, there is no doom and gloom surrounding the Colonials.

"Surprising, even though we are 3-9, [the team's spirit] is still very high. It's still very good," Abiona said. "I think that's what you get when you have such a young team because they're always ready to go, ready to learn."

Added Kvancz: "I give the kids a lot of credit because I think they've represented us well. They've played hard."

For Bozeman, this season's difficulties reaffirmed why he chose his profession.

"Are you coaching to stack up victories? Are you coaching to compare yourself to somebody like Joe McKeown? Or are you coaching because you love this game and because you want to affect young people in a positive way and have something to do with them growing as people?" he said. "Okay, there's trials and tribulations that you're going to deal with. We aren't coaches just to win games."

That's a noble statement, but the reality is that coaches lose jobs because they don't win enough games. Kvancz says Bozeman isn't in danger of that yet.

"Personally, do I think he can have a [down] year? Believe me, it's an interesting year. Yes," Kvancz said. "But then he's got to come back and win some games. This is not a place, because of the expectations and the money that we spend in doing what we're doing, you can't have three years like that."

After being at or near the top of the Atlantic 10 for so long, GW now finds itself looking up at teams such as Dayton (12-3), St. Bonaventure (12-3) and Duquesne (10-5), teams it once dominated. Yet optimism abounds in Foggy Bottom.

"We're going to grow, and I'm telling you, [the players] are going to be better for it," Bozeman said. "When we are healthy, it's going to be so much better. I'm not counting this year out. We're starting anew right now. Every game, we've got a chance to win."

Added Myers: "Despite everything, I wouldn't change it because we've learned so much this season, about each other and the coaches. We're bonding."

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