It was September 1989 and not too many things seemed certain about the George Washington University women's basketball program, except that it seemed to be in deep trouble.

The Colonial Women were a month from the start of practice and had no coach because of Jennifer Bednarek's sudden resignation. With no guidance available and little information coming from the administration, the players were left to fend for themselves.

But in the 15 months since that uncertain period, a 180-degree turn has taken place under second-year coach Joe McKeown. The Colonial Women are off to their best start ever (13-2 overall, 7-0 in the tough Atlantic 10) and in the past week have beaten St. Joseph's twice and Temple, schools that have beaten them routinely in the past. As a result, they received 20 votes for the top 25 this week.

"I think we're on the right track," said McKeown, a Philadelphian who came to George Washington after three years at New Mexico State, during which he took the Roadrunners to the NCAA tournament twice. "I don't know if we're ready to knock off the Penn States and Rutgers of the world, but we're the kind of team they don't want to play."

George Washington plays No. 9 Rutgers (13-1, 6-0) tonight in Piscataway, N.J.

Bednarek resigned in July 1989. After a hasty search, McKeown was hired on Sept. 15, exactly one month before the start of practice.

The first good sign for McKeown was that George Washington's prize recruit, Jennifer Shasky, never wavered in her decision to attend, even though Bednarek had recruited her.

"I found out about one week before I was going to come out," Shasky said. "The coaches are basically the only people you know, so that made me very antsy. But I still believed in the school and the administration."

But the players already at the school, such as Anne Riley, weren't as sure.

"We weren't aware of what was going on," she said. "We weren't included in what was going on administratively."

For McKeown, the brief prepartion time was hectic. "I just came in and watched some film and tried to evaluate the players that were returning," he said. "I really didn't get a chance to think about what kind of basketball we were going to play with the personnel we had."

Another of his goals was to change the attitude that surrounded the program.

In his debut season, he switched from Bednarek's deliberate style to an uptempo game, and the Colonial Women responded with a better-than-expected 14-14 record. "I think we had a great season," he said. "I felt like we really made great strides there. We played everybody really, really tough."

The graduation of leading scorer Karin Vadelund was the one problem McKeown had to overcome this season, and it appears he has because of the outstanding play of the team's rock-solid starting five: forwards Shasky and Kristin McArdle, center Mary K. Nordling and guards Riley and Wanda Lanham.

"He's really let us play the way we can play," McArdle said.

Versatile McArdle fuels much of the team's pace. While not blessed with great speed, the 5-foot-10 junior is an above-average rebounder, ball-handler and passer.

In addition to her 11.4 points and 7.6 rebounds per game, she leads the team with 4.5 assists.

Shasky, a 5-10 sophomore who was Atlantic 10 rookie of the year last season, is the team's top scoring threat.

Shasky, whose brother John plays for the Dallas Mavericks, is a good outside shooter and averages 17.6 points and 5.8 rebounds per game.

Riley, the only starting senior, has been through three coaches and both guard positions. Currently in her preferred spot at off-guard, Riley (12.2 points, 3.3 steals per game) has been a consistent shooter and excellent defender.

Lanham, a reserve her first two years, has handled her starting assignment well. Although she's shooting just 29 percent, she keyed the first victory over St. Joseph's with 14 points and has thrilled McKeown with her play at the point.

Nordling is perhaps the team's most intriguing player. As a freshman, the 6-4 center saw just 40 minutes of action under Bednarek. But McKeown gave her playing time last season, and she responded by averaging 8.3 points and 5.7 rebounds while leading the Atlantic 10 with 2.19 blocked shots per game.

This season, her game has progressed even more, accounting for 14 points, 8 rebounds and 2.7 blocks per game.

"It was unwise not to play her her freshman year, because she needed the experience," McArdle said. "It was very difficult for myself and {former player} Tracey Earley because we never had a sub."

"I just took my freshman year as a waiting period," Nordling said. "I thought 'I'll just learn as much as I can in practice.' "

Despite the improvement, the Colonial Women needed a victory over a conference powerhouse to send a message. The ones over St. Joseph's -- which has been to six straight NCAA tournaments -- accomplished that -- emphatically.

"Last year, {McKeown} was putting in all these things that were new to everybody," Shasky said. "That was something that was very hard for the team. This year, we have the same things; we're just running them better."