As the first woman to serve as president of American University and a former Cabinet member under President Barack Obama, Burwell is used to high-pressure situations. But this time, she was trading in the hard knocks of politics and the academy for the hardwood of the gym.
That evening, she would make her debut coaching college basketball, as the women of American took on Boston University.
"My mom told me to make some noise," Burwell said. "Basketball is special to me."
Burwell, 52, played the sport through junior and senior high school in the small town of Hinton, W.Va., and lettered in basketball while she was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, where former national security adviser Susan E. Rice was her coach.
"I'm sure everyone can imagine what it was like playing for Susan Rice," Burwell said. "Susan was tough and intense, but good."
For one night, Burwell was back in the gym, joining the A-U bench as a guest coach for the women's basketball team. Coach Megan Gebbia invited Burwell at the beginning of the season, not long after Burwell was named the university's 15th president, and the school's new leader immediately expressed interest.
The team has been hosting guest coaches since the early 1990s, according to Athena Argyropoulos, senior associate athletic director and an American graduate. Previous guest coaches have included professors, military members and university alumni. The partnership aims to merge the athletic and academic sides of the university, at least for a few hours during home games.
"It's important for other people who aren't in athletics to see what our players go through on a daily basis," Gebbia said, "and how much planning and strategy goes into games and how detail-oriented we are."
For nearly 40 minutes Wednesday night, Burwell sat on the edge of her seat. It would have been easy to mistake her for just another coach. She shouted encouragement. She joined timeout huddles. And she scoured the stat sheets as players sprinted by just inches away.
Sitting a few feet behind Burwell in the bleachers were her husband, Stephen Burwell, and their two children, plus several dozen of their daughter's basketball teammates and family members.
If players didn't know before, they quickly learned that the leader of their university is a huge basketball fan.
"You feel the energy from the team," Burwell said. "You feel how they play together. You feel how they work with the coach. It was excellent to be there and so fun to just be on the bench and be that close to the game and that close to the action."
Burwell arrived on campus last summer to fanfare. Neil Kerwin had led the university since 2005, and Burwell brought along youthful energy and a résumé in politics that would impress wonky students such as junior international relations major Seamus Curtin.
Curtin, 21, was one of about 50 students attending Wednesday's game.
"The university as a whole on the academic side focuses on real world application on skills beyond theoretical knowledge," he said, "so to see that from the university president on the sports side is really cool and, I think, backs up that focus."
Burwell's role with the team began before the game as she watched the players warm up. She then headed into the locker room for a pregame meeting, with the players taking turns introducing themselves.
When Gebbia told the team to "control the glass," Burwell nodded enthusiastically. During the game, senior guard Maria Liddane sat next to Burwell for several plays and could hear her cheer when an Eagles player grabbed a rebound or made a hustle play.
"I thought it was pretty cool having her there, especially since she's a former secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services," said Liddane, a communications, law, economics and government major. "That's something that I'm interested in."
The Eagles secured a gritty 66-50 victory over Boston University, raising their record to 14-4 overall and 7-0 in the Patriot League.
In a celebratory locker room, Burwell was asked to speak. The game of basketball is never far from her mind, she told the players. It takes a team to be successful, she said, and discipline.
And when things get tough, you must learn how to fight to win."Whether it's health care or the Affordable Care Act or in sport," she said. And if you lose, lose graciously.
In a fractured and divided political climate, her words appeared to resonate. The players gave their undefeated guest coach a rousing cheer.