Commentary

'Blizzard' defense, backcourt a real treat for Colonials

Updated: January 11, 2008, 8:36 PM ET
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Whatever happens with the Democrats and Republicans pursuing the Oval Office during primary season, the nation's capital is likely to remain a bastion of bureaucracy, bickering and unfulfilled promises long past the fall's election. But tucked away in the shadow of some of the city's most famous landmarks to more upbeat ideals, there is one inside-the-beltway program built on nothing grander than pragmatism which continues producing results beyond its press clippings.

[+] EnlargeSarah Jo Lawrence
Stan Liu/Icon SMISarah-Jo Lawrence and the Colonials, who have won seven straight games, take on Xavier on Sunday (ESPN2).

In a city skilled at turning something into nothing, George Washington women's basketball coach Joe McKeown has spent the last 19 seasons doing the opposite. His teams take on foes with bigger names, bigger budgets and sometimes simply bigger players and come out on top. And as their four-year terms in the coach's administration come to a close, seniors Kim Beck and Sarah-Jo Lawrence personify the mix of tactical acumen and intangible personality that continues to keep the establishment at bay.

No. 17 George Washington moved to 12-3 after a week that included a last-second win against then-No. 18 Auburn and a 98-22 rout of Brown. The unanimous preseason pick to win the Atlantic 10, the Colonials should have little difficulty winning at least 20 games for the ninth year in a row and the 17th time in the last 19 seasons. Even if another A-10 team pulls off an upset in the conference tournament and claims the league's automatic bid in March, the foundation is in place in D.C. for an at-large bid that would mark the program's 15th trip to the NCAA Tournament under McKeown.

And at least in this case, change isn't a buzzword McKeown pays much heed.

While the Colonials are anything but a slow-down team, slowing an opponent's offensive inclinations has always been at the root of the program's success. McKeown's matchup zone dubbed "Blizzard" has become as synonymous with the man who brought it to D.C.

The meteorological connotations of a defense that shares a name with winter storms seems appropriate for a team that plays in a city where even a light dusting of snow can turn well-worn traffic patterns into a chaotic clutter of commuters, but the moniker actually has less to do with paralyzing winter storms than frosty dessert treats. McKeown brought both the defensive tactics and the nickname with him from New Mexico State, where he supposedly once promised players Dairy Queen as a reward for good defense.

It's an aggressive, trapping, harassing matchup system that turns offensive sets into shot-clock triage. Turnovers are encouraged -- to the tune of 18.5 per game this season -- but forced shots and rhythm-breaking scrambles work just as well.

"You have to work," Beck said. "It's not a defense that if you just sit around with your hands up it's going to work. It's not a zone; it's a matchup. And you have to hustle or it's not going to work at all."

Players come and go in college sports and a successful coach is likely to lose even assistant coaches as times goes by -- Tajama Ngongba is the dean of McKeown's current assistants in just her fourth season. What sticks is a coach's particular philosophy.

"I think it's something that evolves over your coaching career," McKeown said. "You get comfortable with certain things. I think with 'Blizzard,' when I got here we put it in because we had Rutgers and Penn State and all those teams in the Atlantic 10 and our league was phenomenal. When I took the job, we just didn't have enough bodies to compete with that level. So it allowed us to stay in the game with a lot of those top teams.

[+] EnlargeJoe McKeown
Mitchell Layton/Getty ImagesCoach Joe McKeown is seeking his 15th NCAA Tournament appearance in 19 seasons at George W ashington.

"It just kind evolved as what we do here at GW -- kind of out of desperation more than strategy."

McKeown is a self-effacing storyteller still willing after all these years to take the microphone after a game, thank the fans for coming out and encourage them to come back sometime soon. But even if necessity was the mother of invention when it came to his defense, as he claims, it still required an inspired inventor.

En route to a Sweet 16 appearance last season, the Colonials limited opponents to 35 percent shooting and forced 19.6 turnovers per game. Taking into account the team's typically rigorous nonconference schedule, and the mild stat inflation typical in conference play, they are on about the same pace so far this season. Only once in the last 10 seasons has a George Washington team allowed opponents to shoot better than 40 percent over the course of an entire season, but the defense has been especially stingy dating back to the fall of 2004.

Not coincidentally, that's when Beck and Lawrence arrived on campus as freshmen.

Beck started 31 of 32 games her first season and was named the Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Year, while Lawrence came off the bench for all but four of her 32 appearances. But different roles didn't keep the two newcomers from bonding on and off the court.

"We both got here and we had no idea what was going on," Lawrence said. "We just figured out things together. And we clicked, we found each other's games -- we started playing with each other in the summertime -- and ever since then we've just been an awesome backcourt, I think, knowing each other and playing off each other."

Lawrence's minutes nearly doubled to 29.2 per game in her second season and she led the team in scoring at 11.6 points per game. Alongside Beck and Whitney Allen, a perimeter threat who arrived a year earlier than the other two but redshirted her first season, Lawrence was part of a group that underwent a trial by fire early. They worked well together then -- the Colonials advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament in both 2005 and 2006 -- but the experience is paying even greater dividends four years down the road.

"When I was a freshman, it was me, Sarah-Jo and Whitney out there and we were a little helter-skelter, I guess," Beck said. "But as we've grown together, we've learned what the other ones are going to do, so we can feed off each other. We might not run [the defense] exactly how it's supposed to be run, but we know what the other one is going to do."

As Lawrence demonstrated with a career-best 29 points in a win against then-10th-ranked Texas A&M, a game the Colonials played without leading scorer Jessica Adair, George Washington's backcourt doesn't just play defense. Beck is one of the nation's quickest players, especially with the ball in her hand, and her all-around game -- she led the A-10 in assists each of her first three seasons -- makes her a WNBA lock. Along with her defensive IQ, Lawrence has the range and physical presence off the dribble to follow the same path.

But it's the success they've had in maintaining a defensive program that ranks as one of Washington D.C.'s longest-running success stories that puts them in the running with the likes of Epiphanny Prince and Matee Ajavon or Alexis Hornbuckle and Shannon Bobbitt as the nation's best all-around backcourt.

"I think every coach in women's basketball, you really look at offensive skills in recruiting," McKeown explained. "It's hard to go out there and say I'm going to go sign the best defensive player on the high school team. So I think most coaches rely on, when a player comes in with all these offensive skills, to teach them how to play defense."

No wonder McKeown isn't going to hear any talk of term limits in the near future.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.

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