Pittsburgh, PA — After a disappointing 2016-17 season, at least by its standards, the Duquesne women’s basketball team knew that there was an improvement which needed to be made in order to have more consistent results.
Duquesne scored 64.9 points per game last season but surrendered 64.6 points per game, and this minute difference helped contribute to an 18-16 overall season.
Assistant coach Rachel Wojdowski is known as the team’s defensive coordinator and took on the challenge over this summer of having the team understand its importance, something she believed was the biggest task of those months.
“Defense is all effort and I think last year especially it depended on if we were scoring,” she said. “The energy was up, the girls were happy, defense is all about effort and mentality. Especially this summer you put a bigger emphasis on it. It’s important and sets the tone of how your team is. Yeah you have to score more points than the other team, but you have to have your defense become your offense sometimes.”
This season, Duquesne allows 63.2 points, per game, which is a 1.4 point improvement, but also has opened up the offense which has averaged 72.3 points per game.
“There’s always a learning curve and it goes year-by-year,” said Wojdowski. “A year ago we really didn’t have anybody teaching anybody. You have to learn by experience yourself. The returnees have a year under their belt of good times, ugly times, different types of pressure situations but credit to them that this year we got the stops on defense and didn’t crumble when the ball did not go in the basket.”
Duquesne also has held opponents to a 33.2% clip in the first three Atlantic 10 contests and Wojdowski revealed a sliver of the formula of what has keyed this change.
“It’s being able to stay lower in a stance so we work on lateral movement, sliding, just getting them to understand that it might hurt and it might burn, but you’re still able to push through and have that low aggressive stance longer than what you thought you could,” she said.
Duquesne’s defense will be put to the test against a George Washington team which has won its past two contests, and is an opponent the Dukes are quite familiar with.
It was this GW team which handed Duquesne its most lopsided defeat of conference play last season, before the Dukes won at Foggy Bottom and then won an emotional Atlantic 10 Championship quarterfinal game which had a high-quality of play to it.
“This is a huge game for us, we are always back and forth,” redshirt sophomore Paige Cannon said. “They always come ready to play and we do too. It’s going to be a bullfight.”
GW is also prepared to defend its home court in a nationally televised game, as this contest will be televised by CBS Sports Network.
“Last year was kind of an emotional roller coaster against Duquesne for sure,” George Washington coach Jennifer Rizzotti said. “I know it’s been more of a rivalry of late, certainly it will be in the player’s minds that they were the team that kind of ended our season last year and our hopes for an NCAA Tournament bid, but our team has been focused on the present. I think last year we were more of a favorite going into the series, especially with how we beat them the first game, whereas this year they may be more of a favorite than we are because of what we’ve lost. It is another chance for us to measure against the best.”
Duquesne is one of three teams with a 3-0 start in A-10 play with Dayton and Fordham the others, but how they have reached this point is something Dukes coach Dan Burt is not as proud of.
Though Duquesne put together a solid fourth quarter at Davidson, a quick start at VCU and a steady second half against UMass, the team has yet to play a complete 40 minutes.
“We can’t play down to the level of other people and I don’t feel we’ve done that necessarily we’ve either shot poorly or not defended dribble penetration,” he said. “We also have to make sure the center on the block gets blocked out by the weak side person.”
Despite this concern, each of these three games could have been lost last year.
“We are much more mature than we were last year and we have been down by 16-17 points and come back,” said Cannon. “That never would have happened last year. We are learning to compete and we’ve shot the ball 7% in quarters. Last year it was more of if we aren’t scoring, we aren’t going to do anything. We won’t play defense either and let them score all over us. This year, we really are not scoring, we have to get stops or we’re going to lose. We just learned how to work together to win games.”
It has been repeated by both coaches and players that everyone understands their role and this constant is something Wojdowski notes, just was not there a year ago.
“The scariest thing last year was we didn’t know what team was going to show up,” she said. “As a coach there are things you like to know. We didn’t have that last year. This year I feel like we are conforming a little bit more. We can expect things now from players.”
So often it is considered “coach speak” when a team takes everything “one game at a time”, in fact Burt himself cringes when asked postgame about Duquesne’s next opponent, but this season that exact mentally has served the Dukes well.
“I think it was learning for us that we can lose to anyone we play against on any given day,” said Cannon. “We have to be ready for anything any day, that’s the difference.”
New-look GW using hands-on approach to find success
Last season Jennifer Rizzotti openly admitted that at times she worried about fitting the team’s style, especially with four decorated seniors. She stated that there were times where she felt it was best to stay out of their way.
This year, her leadership has been demonstrated both early and often, something which she felt this team needed.
“I don’t know if the players always feel great at how much more demanding and vocal I’ve been,” she said. “I think they would agree that they needed it, they’ve really needed to be pushed, prodded, challenged and praised. I made them line up on the baseline way more than last year’s group. They’ve managed through it all to stay positive and really feel good at how this season is going and where we can be at the end of it. We rarely talk about long-term goals, we’re not a team that is in a place to do that. They’ve done a good job of staying in the present moment. They’ve been enjoyable to coach. It hasn’t really been easy, but they have responded to each challenge in front of them.”
Though the overall record reads 7-8 it is misleading given a challenging non-conference schedule which included contests against Princeton, Vanderbilt, Syracuse, USF, Mercer and Maryland.
Still GW enters play 2-1 in Atlantic 10 play with wins against both VCU and George Mason.
This George Washington team will look a lot different to Duquesne since the focus increase on the defensive end. George Mason learned that the hard way as the Colonials allowed the Patriots top two scorers to exceed their averages, while pressuring everyone else on the roster to shoot a combined 2-for-25 from the field.
“There’s definitely been more of a focus on defense and part of that is because we needed it,” said Rizzotti. “Last year’s team had much more senior leadership, where in some cases they were defensive-minded naturally. This group has been a lot focus and as a coach being more creative with how we defend people. I do think we’ve taken big strides on the defensive end of the floor and I am hoping that will continue as we go through A-10 play. If we can hang in there on the defense, I think we have enough offensive fire power to get quite a few wins as we move through.”
GW has been put to the test with 10 players seeing the court, but Kelli Prange’s concussion has forced her to miss seven of the team’s last eight games.
This has resulted in added playing time for junior forward Kelsi Mahoney and freshman forward Neila Luma.
“Neila’s development has been key for us and certainly been a blessing that she has come in right away and get quite a bit done,” Rizzotti said. “Our post player rotation is really short right now so there may have been times in the past where I would have just taken them out of the game, I’ve had to force myself to let them play through and learn while playing. I think the confidence I have seen in Neila and Kelsi has paid off.”
Rizzotti has also had to play her other two freshmen in forward Chyna Latimer and guard Lexus Levy, something which has allowed them to get opportunities early on.
While in general as a coach you do not want to rely on freshmen, each has learned on the fly and scored in double figures at least once.
Part of what has allowed GW to have early conference success has been the mindset that the players control the program.
This season, each player has had the chance to help out with a scouting report which has been a benefit for several reasons.
“Once the game starts, there is not really much we as coaches can do,” said Rizzotti. “We spend a lot of time with our preparation I think when they put the effort into doing that themselves and see how much film we watch to help get them ready, it gives them an appreciation for the hard work behind the scenes. Hopefully that makes them more focused on paying attention and executing the game plan. It bonds them together and gives them ownership.”
Duquesne knows that this game will be a test not just because of the many changes between the teams these past year but also because each brings out the best in the other.
“They don’t have great size but they have hard-nosed guards,” Burt said. “Running that five-out motion you don’t want people to get hot. They’re a reflection of who their coach is and Rizzotti was a tough hard-nosed guard.
Duquesne will win if
1. Role players step up– Chassidy Omogrosso and Julijana Vojinovic have both been forces this season, while also seeing improvements on the defensive end. GW could easily try to do what Davidson could not this past week and challenge force other players such as a Libby Bazelak, Paige Cannon, Eniko Kuttor or even a Kadri-Ann Lass to beat them. This worked against George Mason and could certainly be replicated again if that is what the scout calls for.
2. Crash the D boards– Duquesne has been giving up too many second chances on the boards and opponents have scored too many free baskets as a result. GW is a team that thrives on the offensive rebounds which plays into one of Duquesne’s weaknesses.
3. Avoid turnovers– Duquesne has had some high turnover games this season and GW’s best offense has been its defense. It likes to get the ball and set up their offense.
George Washington will win if
1. It can contain Omogrosso/Vojinovic or the rest of the roster– Some of the rationale behind this was listed above and Rizzotti believes the two are among the hardest in the conference to guard. GW could easily focus its defensive pressure and energy on others or stop this pair since they have made Duquesne go in many respects.
2. Stay poised– Duquesne will go on its runs, as will GW. It comes down to remaining level-headed and staying within itself. The end of non-conference play served as a reminder that all of the challenging games were geared towards contests such as this one on Saturday. GW has been outrebounded each time Prange has not played and that could play to Duquesne’s advantage but this is not a reason for the Colonials to panic.
3. Nothing easy– GW cannot just provide token pressure or jog back on either side of the ball. It will take 40 minutes of effort whether it is winning 50-50 balls, crashing the boards, getting the defense set or not allowing open perimeter looks.
Photo credit: Duquesne Athletics