Thereâ€™s no place like home for Jennifer Rizzotti. Make that no place likes homes.
The George Washington womenâ€™s basketball coach and Team USA assistant coach traveled with the national squad to Bridgeportâ€™s Webster Bank Arena this past weekend. The New Fairfield native returned to the state where she made a name for herself as a player at UConn and as a coach at the University of Hartford.
â€śDo I miss Connecticut? Of course, I miss Connecticut,â€ť Rizzotti said. â€śI miss not only my family, but Connecticut was always my family. The people here will always have a special place in my heart.â€ť
Rizzotti was a star at New Fairfield High and led the Rebels to two state championships. The winning continued at UConn as she helped guide the Huskies to the first of their 11 national championships in 1995.
Her length-of-the-court drive that gave UConn the lead for good with 1:51 left may be the single-most memorable play in program history.
As a senior, she was named an All-American for the second time and was selected the Associated Press Player of the Year and the Wade Trophy winner. She was inducted into the Womenâ€™s Basketball Hall of Fame in 2013.
She started her professional career with the ABLâ€™s New England Blizzard and then played five seasons in the WNBA, winning two championships with the Houston Comets.
She was with the Comets when she got her first coaching job at Hartford. The Hawks made six NCAA Tournament appearances in her 17 seasons before she made the move to GW in the nationâ€™s capital.
â€śSo far it has been great,â€ť Rizzotti said. â€śItâ€™s been a big adjustment for us and our family, but we have settled in. I have been able to take over a program that was very successful and continue the tradition. It was really good to get back in the NCAA Tournament last year. Iâ€™m excited about the progress weâ€™re making.â€ť
Making the move to George Washington was tough professionally and personally, but Rizzotti was ready for another challenge.
And those who have followed her the past quarter-century knows sheâ€™s never been a person to back down from one.
â€śMy loyalty to Hartford was strong,â€ť Rizzotti said. â€śIt was hard for me to walk into that locker room and tell them that I was going because they were my family and they were my kids. But I knew I wasnâ€™t going to be happy staying there. I felt stagnant. I felt like I had given everything that I had to build that program and get it where it was. I thought it was going to be too difficult to improve it any further.
â€śI needed to be at a place where I felt like I could take another step in the right direction to advance my career and get to a little bit further than I was able to get in Hartford.â€ť
George Washington won 20 games and advanced to the 2017 WNIT in her first season. In Year 2, the Colonials captured the Atlantic-10 Conference Tournament title and the leagueâ€™s automatic bid to the NCAAs.
â€śIt was pretty special,â€ť Rizzotti said. â€śIt had been a little while since I had been there myself personally, and that is what I went there for. My first year when we werenâ€™t able to go with a favored team, it was really disappointing. So to be able to exceed expectations and get there with the team we had last year, it was one of my more rewarding years in coaching.â€ť
Her current squad took a tour to Spain last month and she was excited by what she saw. She has a young roster with two seniors and no juniors. Sheâ€™ll be returning to Spain later this month as Team USA seeks its third straight gold medal at the FIBA World Cup in Tenerife.
Her spot on Dawn Staleyâ€™s staff is her seventh coaching position with USA Basketball. That includes being the head coach of the 2010 U-18 team and 2011 U-19 team that won gold medals, and serving as an advance scout/court coach for Geno Auriemmaâ€™s gold-medal winning 2016 Olympic team and 2014 World Cup team.
â€śI just enjoy the program,â€ť Rizzotti said.
She is also the chairperson of the USA Basketball womenâ€™s junior national team committee, which was responsible for selecting the athletes and coaches for the USA-18 national team.
The 2018 U-18 team that included UConn freshmen Christyn Williams and Olivia Nelson-Ododa qualified the United States for the 2019 FIBA U-19 World Cup.
â€śI thought they were great,â€ť Rizzotti said. â€śI had never seen Olivia in person so she was just kind of an eye-opener for me in terms of her ability to move and be athletic and get to the rim. Christyn, we put on the 19 and under championship team last year and she continued to prove why she is one of the elite players in the country. They both are hungry and they are coachable and competitive. Iâ€™m excited to see what they do at UConn. I think they have a bright future.â€ť