The George Washington women's basketball team came into the 2015-16 season with high expectations. The Colonials returned four starters from a team that set a school single-season record with 29 victories, earned the Atlantic 10 championship and made the program's first NCAA tournament appearance since the 2007-08 campaign.
Head coach Jonathan Tsipis' squad has lived up to those lofty expectations. George Washington has been the Atlantic 10's dominant team during the first half of the conference schedule. The Colonials improved to 8-0 in league play and extended their winning streak to 13 games with a 79-60 win against host Davidson Jan. 27. George Washington, which raised its overall mark to 18-3 with the win at Davidson, can further solidify its hold on the conference lead with a victory against St. Louis University Jan. 31 at the Smith Center. As of Jan. 28, the Colonials hold a one-game lead on St. Bonaventure and a 1.5-game edge over St. Louis.
"Early in the season, we went from 5-1 to 5-3 when we lost two games where we had fourth-quarter leads," said Tsipis, who has coached George Washington to an 84-34 record during the past four seasons. "The biggest catalyst for us was the Memphis game. We were down, 31-15, in the second quarter, but the team didn't panic, and we found a way to win that game (a 68-62 Colonials victory). Since then, we've won in different ways, but their confidence came from that Memphis game."
George Washington's success has largely been built on the backboards. The Colonials are second in the nation in rebounding margin, hauling in 16.4 boards per game more than their opponents. They have won the rebounding battle during each of their 21 games. George Washington has also been a stingy defensive team, holding opponents to 61.5 points per game.
"After the Christmas break, they realized what a good defensive team they could be," Tsipis said. "And they understand that rebounding is their best ally, especially at the offensive end."
The Colonials' cornerstone is senior forward Jonquel Jones. The 6-foot-6 native of Freeport, Bahamas, who earned All-America honors last season, is the nation's leading rebounder at 14.8 boards per game. Jones, who also leads George Washington in scoring (16.9 points per game) and blocks (three), is a candidate for two of college basketball's most prestigious honors: the Naismith Trophy and the Ann Meyers Drysdale Award. A five-time Atlantic 10 Player of the Week selection during the 2015-16 season, Jones is also one of 30 players nationally who are in the running for the NCAA's Senior CLASS Award.
"Jonquel has been the linchpin in our defense," Tsipis said. "She isn't just blocking shots but is defending the rim. She's altered, changed and rushed our opponents' shots this year."
Jones isn't the Colonials' only frontcourt standout. After earning first-team All-Atlantic 10 honors last season, junior forward Caira Washington is averaging 13.8 points, 8.3 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game during the 2015-16 campaign. The 6-foot-2 Washington, who was invited to the USA Basketball team trials last year, became the 31st player in program history to reach the career 1,000-point mark during the Colonials' Jan. 10 victory at Dayton. Kelli Prange, a 6-foot-5 sophomore forward, has contributed seven points and five rebounds an outing.
"I think that the USA Basketball experience really helped Caira," Tsipis said. "She's developed a cohesiveness not only with Jonquel, but also with Kelli."
George Washington's experienced backcourt has been a major factor during the 13-game winning streak. Junior Hannah Schaible (9.9 points, 6.2 rebounds per game) and point guard Lauren Chase, a graduate student who is averaging 8.9 points and a team-leading 5.8 assists per game, have been valuable at both ends of the court. Sophomore Brianna Cummings is averaging 7.6 points and 4.5 rebounds per game, while junior Shannon Cranshaw leads the team from long range with 21 3-pointers.
"Hannah is able to come up with a lot of loose balls, and she's become more of an offensive threat," Tsipis said. "Lauren has been able to get the team in the tempo that we want, and she's given us somebody who can guard the other team's best perimeter player effectively."
As they enter the second half of the conference schedule, the Colonials are in position to earn the top seed in the league tournament for the second straight year. George Washington still must face its closest competitors, taking on St. Louis Jan. 31 and St. Bonaventure Feb. 17.
"We expected a close race," Tsipis said. "St. Louis was bringing everybody back, and the success of St. Bonaventure hasn't been a surprise."