March 7, 2024 

‘Believing Big’ has taken George Mason to new heights

With the 23-6 finish to the regular season, the Patriots head to the Atlantic 10 Tournament with a mission

To truly grasp how fast Vanessa Blair-Lewis has turned things around at George Mason, one only needs to look back three years.

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In 2020-21 — the year before Blair-Lewis became the head coach at the school where she who grew up playing basketball on the weekends in the Recreation Athletic Complex on Mason’s campus — the Patriots didn’t win a single A-10 game and had the program’s worst offensive season since the 1970s by averaging on 50.7 points per game.

But just three years later, Mason is a 20-win team for just the sixth time in school history, with a 23-6 record overall and a 14-4 record in conference, and has a legitimate chance to take the A-10 title this weekend in Henrico. And while the change didn’t happen overnight, it’s been about as rapid as it has been remarkable.

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Blair-Lewis has been a defensive-minded coach for a while and worked to instill the focus on that end of the floor first, in part because she wasn’t entirely sure where the offense would come from for the Patriots. In her first season, George Mason went 10-19 but had a 3-12 record in A-10 play, matching the total number of conference wins in the previous two seasons combined and winning their first A-10 Tournament game since the 2017-18 season.

“Mainly, it was a lot of our defense, and we were holding teams in the 50s,” Blair-Lewis told The Next about the 2021-22 season. “But then the second year … we got a little bit better offensively and still maintained our defensive prowess.” 

After being picked to finish 14th in the A-10, the Patriots finished the 2022-23 season 16-15 (8-8 in conference play to earn the No. 9 seed in the conference tournament), putting together the program’s first winning season since 2018-19. But at an end-of-season meeting with her coaching staff, the biggest question was what the Patriots needed to keep pushing up the conference standings. To Blair-Lewis, the answer was pretty clear.

“I felt like if we could address our offensive scoring issues, as well as continue to be so still defensive-minded, that we would be a scary team,” Blair-Lewis said. “And I think that’s exactly what we are now. Our offense and our defense have caught up to each other.”

The defense was always needed to continue to be sturdy, but Blair-Lewis wanted Mason to consistently score 65-70 points a game to match the top teams in the A-10. As they enter the postseason, it’s been mission accomplished: the 71.1 points per game Mason is averaging is the most in the program’s NCAA Division I era and has helped the team win more games against conference opponents (including the A-10 Tournament) than in the last three seasons combined

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To compete with the top teams in the conference, Blair-Lewis knew she’d also have to recruit players who could impact the game on both ends of the floor — and could keep up the pace.

“Our biggest thing was that they could put the ball in the hole and that we could play at a fast tempo. And that was big for us,” she said. “So, not only addressing the scoring issue concern, but we also wanted to address the depth issue. We needed to have a lot of bodies to play the style we wanted to play.”

Of the 16 players listed on the team’s roster, 13 have played in a game this season and 11 have played in at least 10 games. And beyond just playing, the scoring is coming from a wide variety of players too, as the Patriots have five players who are averaging at least nine points per game. To them, the feeling that 2023-24 was going to be special started to permeate as early as last summer, during workouts and pickup games.

“When you play pickup without rules or whatever you get to see the raw talent someone has,” graduate student center Jazmyn Doster told The Next. “And when you play pickup we would find who had a hot hand or whose shot was whose shot and then seeing everyone’s different caliber. So, obviously, Sonia [Smith] and Taylor [Jameson] shoot very well the ball from the three and then get downhill very well. And then Amy O’Hara, she’s very good in the paint. But she can also stretch the floor for three. And [Ta’Viyanna Habib]’s mid-range game and Kennedy [Harris]’s — it’s just like there’s so many people … who have their shots and combined together there’s no shot that we won’t take.”

Mason is 7-0 in games in which its scored at least 80 points. “I think when you’re able to score like that you’re able to put more pressure on defensively,” Blair-Lewis said. On the other hand, The team is 6-3 when it scores 60 or fewer points, and though the team has shown a much-improved offense, defense remains a non-negotiable. “Every night you can’t say oh the shots are gonna fall, because some nights, you’re just gonna have a bad night and we’ve had those,” Blair-Lewis said. “But your defense has to travel, it has to be there consistently every single night.”

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After allowing La Salle to score just 37 points in Mason’s A-10 opener on Dec. 30, 2023, Blair-Lewis noted that it felt good to have a stingy defense. “We put a lot of emphasis on defense for this program,” she said that night. “And as of late, we shifted a little bit to be able to score a lot more. We have a lot of offensive players. But to lock in defensively is always my number one and to see them do that, it feels really good.”

The 57.7 points per game the Patriots are allowing is the team’s fewest since at least the 2002-03 season and 38th in Division I this season. 

“Defense is just the mentality and having the heart to do something,” Doster said. “So on defense, you want to dictate, you don’t want to be reactive. And knowing that oh we haven’t scored the last three trips down, that means they can’t score the next three trips down, just to balance it out. … So if we can’t score, you can’t score.”

Rebounding and causing turnovers creates offensive opportunities and opportunities to push the tempo in transition for Mason. The Patriots force the most turnovers in the A-10 (18.8 per game) while limiting their own turnovers to just 13.3 per game, second-best in the conference. Mason is also second in the A-10 in steals, averaging 9.3 per game

“It’s easy buckets,” junior guard Ta’Viyanna Habib told The Next. “A lot of teams don’t understand that defense turns into offense. So a lot of stuff we do, it makes it better for us not getting a set or half-court set. We like to push the tempo and we score through transition points, so honestly, it kind of — it makes everything more — much more fun and easier.”

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Zahirah Walton goes up for a layup against Saint Louis at EagleBank Arena in Fairfax, Virginia, on Jan. 17, 2024. (Photo credit: Rafael Suanes | George Mason University)

Three of the Patriots’ top five scorers come off the bench: freshman guard Kennedy Harris, senior guard Taylor Jameson and sophomore forward Zahirah Walton, who redshirted last year due to injury. The trio is a big part of why Mason is fourth in Division I in bench scoring.

“I think it’s just important to know that we also bring something to the team, not just the starters,” Walton told The Next. “So just knowing we have to come in and be prepared to just do whatever we can to help the team get a win. So it’s just important we bring our aggressiveness on offense and both defense.” 

Habib believes the bench takes some of the pressure off of the starting five, knowing there won’t be a drop-off when the reserves enter the game. She believes that anybody on the team could start. Similarly, Doster knows that the bench doesn’t worry about their minutes, instead, they focus on making them count.

“It’s just knowing how everyone’s strengths lie, it’s not about who starts or whose game it is, just everyone’s going to contribute,” she said. “And having those 30 points off the bench and knowing that whoever the second string is that comes in can do just as much as the starters, if not better. It just helps us keep the depth that our coaches have recruited for and go on like that. …[I]t might not be my night, it might not be Sonia’s night, but we know we can count on Taylor, Ken [Harris] and Zaza [Walton] to come in and get it done.” 

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Unfortunately for the Patriots, Harris – who averages 9.4 points, 3.3 rebounds, 1.3 assists and 1.2 steals per game — was taken off the court on a stretcher during the first quarter of the team’s March 2 game against VCU, leaving her status for the A-10 Tournament unknown. 

Doster was finishing up her sophomore year when Blair-Lewis was hired and watched the family mentality that her new head coach brought with her make an impact. During the summer, the team focuses on individual skills and how each member of the team can be a better individual part.

“Over the seasons we’ve seen how each of our parts come together and make a championship-caliber team,” Doster said. “Whether it’s okay, shots aren’t falling, so now we need to lock in and get stops on defense or if we know we need clutch free throws we know the first one we want on the floor is Taylor.

“It’s just that as the seasons progress and Coach [Blair-Lewis] has that confidence in us, … [it]  has helped us develop ourselves for us to be a better team and I think that’s how we’ve gotten to where we are now. … [A]nd just knowing that she believes in us, helps us know that anything is possible. We might be down five or we might have blown a 10-point lead. But if we just put our heads down and go back to what we know we can do, that with her guidance, it just makes anything seem possible.”

“Believe Big” has been a mantra for Blair-Lewis and her teams since the start of her tenure at Mason; it stems from the Christian belief of having faith and hope that God will see you through in life.

“We also know that we serve a really big God, that there’s nothing He can’t do,” Blair-Lewis told reporters after the team’s 78-53 win over Dayton on Feb. 28. “And so ‘Believe Big’ is just a testament that this is — His fingerprints are all over the season, we were just His vessels, this is a ministry, He’s given us an opportunity to pour into these young women’s lives. And He just put His footprint all over this program.”

After the team’s 75-71 win over Florida on Dec 1, 2021, Blair-Lewis said the mantra was meant for that kind of game, the program’s first win over an SEC team in nearly 25 years. “We talked about with this program believing big and it’s for moments like this,” she told reporters after the game. “It is because of moments like this that you can believe bigger than what you’ve done.”

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Later that season Mason secured its 10th win of the season in the first round of the A-10 Tournament and after the game, Blair-Lewis talked about the impact the win had on the program. 

“That’s why our slogan is ‘Believe Big,’” she said. “We knew what we were taking over. We know that the program had struggled in the last few years. And we knew that there were steps that were going to have to be taken. And sometimes you don’t take those giant leaps, you got to take baby steps. And I always talk about it like farming and harvesting … first you have to till the soil and then you have to plant the seed. And then you have to water it and then the harvest comes and you don’t skip those steps if you want a bountiful harvest, and that’s what we did this year. We planted seeds. We tilled the soil and then there’s a harvest that came at the end.”

Throughout this season the coaching staff has put encouragement and belief into the team. Graduate student guard Sonia Smith believes that the confidence the coaching staff instills into the team while pushing them to be better has helped the team play well this season. 

After the team’s Feb. 28 win, Blair-Lewis reflected back on the growth she’s seen in the program over her first three seasons at Mason. “It causes a believability, especially in your players, when you come and you give them this outline of what we’re going to do. And they’re looking at you like ‘Coach, we haven’t won a game [in the A-10] before you got here like what do you mean?’” she said.“ And they just see us take those steps … you just see them ‘Believe Big.’”

Jameson described her journey over the last four years emphatically as a “fever dream” for the Wichita, Kan. native.

“I feel like this was a team that our coaches really engraved like the meaning of being a family, so that was something that was very different,” Jameson told The Next. “And I think it shows on the court just like having each other’s back, cheering for each other. Nobody’s on the ground longer than two seconds without someone coming to pick them up. And just for me, especially, that meant a lot for me, because I’m so far from home. So just having that family atmosphere, I think that it really helped carry into our wins. But that’s the stuff that’s done in the dark.”

Doster expanded on the idea of what the team accomplished outside of the view of media and fans. “We practice six days a week. We have hard film sessions. We got tough talks with our coaches and we grind,” she said. “And just having everyone else see what we’ve done behind closed doors, it feels validat[ing]. It’s like, ‘Believe Big.’ And now we’re seeing that when we do what comes of it.”

Smith knows that good things are ahead for Mason under Blair-Lewis. “You’ve seen what she’s done in just three years. Just imagine what she can continue to do,” she told The Next. … ”[T]his is early in her transformation years, and she’s done a lot for this program. Zero conference wins, winning like three games one year, and now we’re a 20-win team right now. So I feel like the future is very bright.”

Mason earned the No. 4 seed in the A-10 Tournament, the team’s best finish in the A-10 standings since it finished fourth in the 2017-18 season. The Patriots will play Duquesne on March 8 at 1:30 p.m. ET on ESPN+. 

Though the Patriots enter the A-10 Tournament coming off of a 61-56 loss to VCU, they bring with them the same mindset they’ve had all year: it’s all about the “next game up,” not allowing wins or losses to impact the next game. “We keep our head down and we grind for the next game,” Blair-Lewis said. “…We don’t look down the road, we just take it one game at a time.”

A10 Talk’s Daniel Frank contributed reporting to this story.

Written by Natalie Heavren

Natalie Heavren has been a contributor to The Next since February 2019 and currently writes about the Atlantic 10 conference, the WNBA and the WBL.

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