The Auburn women’s basketball team had just completed practice on Monday afternoon when first-year coach Terri Williams-Flournoy picked up the telephone and asked playfully:
“So, did you miss me?”
On Wednesday night, Williams-Flournoy will be back coaching in the District for the first time since leaving Georgetown for a Southeastern Conference program that’s trying to return to national prominence. The Tigers will play George Washington, which also has a first-year coach in Jonathan Tsipis.
During her eight seasons with the Hoyas, Williams-Flournoy engineered a dramatic turnaround that has left the program on solid footing. Before Georgetown hired Williams-Flournoy as a first-time head coach in 2004-05, it had reached one NCAA tournament. Georgetown since has made three consecutive NCAA tournaments, including advancing to the round of 16 in 2010-11, and become a regular in the top 25.
Over Williams-Flournoy’s last four seasons on the Hilltop, the Hoyas went 93-41, the most successful run in program history.
Auburn advanced to the national title game in three consecutive seasons from 1988 to 1990, but the Tigers have not had a winning record since going 30-4 in 2008-09. Auburn finished 13-17 last season, prompting Nell Fortner to resign as head coach after eight seasons.
“After the last four years having been so successful [at Georgetown], it’s hard to even think about,” said Williams-Flournoy, who is 6-2 in her first season at Auburn. “It’s just not something you’re used to, that I will never get used to. It’s just once again being patient and understanding that yes you are rebuilding the program, and it’s not the same as what you left.”
Among the signature moments during Williams-Flournoy’s stint with the Hoyas was a 79-57 win over Maryland in the second round of the 2010-11 NCAA tournament in College Park. Georgetown used its relentless full-court press to rattle the 2006 national champions, who never got closer than 16 points in the second half.
Hoyas guard Sugar Rodgers, at the time a sophomore, scored what was then a career-high 34 points, making 7 of 10 from three-point range. Rodgers is set to graduate from Georgetown in the spring, and the program’s all-time scoring leader remains close with Williams-Flournoy.
Williams-Flournoy was largely responsible for bringing Rodgers to Georgetown, even though the eventual first-team all-Big East selection was unsure if she even would be going to college. So when Rodgers learned Williams-Flournoy was leaving in April, she was stunned by the announcement.
“It was quite emotional,” said Rodgers, who is out of the area for a family emergency but hopes to attend Wednesday’s game. “She had told me kind of separate from the team. She told me, and we cried. We shared some tears. It was a bittersweet moment.”
These days, Williams-Flournoy is in the early stages of installing a press defense at Auburn, which has not been to the NCAA tournament since 2009. Part of that process included heavy conditioning work for players during the summer and continued focus on fitness in the regular season to enable the Tigers to apply full-court pressure for 40 minutes.
George Washington (4-4), meantime, is at least somewhat familiar with that frenetic pace, given that the Colonials already played Georgetown this month. Under first-year Coach Keith Brown, who had been the top assistant to Williams-Flournoy, the Hoyas pulled away in the second half for a 70-54 win at Smith Center on Dec. 1.
“When we all found out it was Coach Flo and that she was coming from Georgetown and the success she had at that program, we were all really excited about it,” Auburn senior guard-forward Blanche Alverson said. “Excited for a change and just looking forward to having kind of a new atmosphere around Auburn, around our program.
“I think we’re still getting used to the new style of play with the fast-paced defense. That’s something that Coach Flo has really emphasized this year. Defense is what’s going to win us games. Trying to get accustomed to that kind of style has been definitely a transition, but I think we’re fully starting to buy into the system offensively and defensively.”