Jennifer Rizzotti was right at home when the United States women's national team hosted Japan at George Washington University's Charles E. Smith Center Monday night. The Team USA assistant coach is about to start her third season as George Washington's head coach.
But her real homecoming was Saturday when Team USA traveled to Bridgeport's Webster Bank Arena. The New Fairfield native was back in the state where she made a name for herself as a player at the University of Connecticut and as a coach at the University of Hartford.
"Do I miss Connecticut? Yes, of course, I miss Connecticut," Rizzotti said. "I miss not only my family, but Connecticut was always my family, the people here. It's good to be back and hear them cheering in the crowd for us. The people here will always have a special place in my heart."
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. Her length-of-the-court drive that gave UConn the lead for good with 1:51 left against Tennessee 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 Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2013.
She started her professional career with the ABL'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 - the program's first - in her 17 seasons before she made the move to George Washington in the nation's capital.
"So far it has been great," Rizzotti said. "It'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."
Making the move to George Washington was tough both professionally and personally, but Rizzotti was ready for another challenge.
And those who have followed her the past quarter-century knows she's never been a person to back down from one.
"My loyalty to Hartford was strong," Rizzotti said. "It 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 wasn'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.
"I 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."
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 league's automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
"It was pretty special," Rizzotti said. "It 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 weren'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."
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.
She'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 Staley'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 Auriemma's gold-medal winning 2016 Olympic team and 2014 World Cup team.
"I just enjoy the USA program," Rizzotti said.
She is also the chairperson of the USA Basketball women'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 won the gold medal at the FIBA Americas Championships in Mexico and qualified the United States for the 2019 FIBA U-19 World Cup.
"I thought they were great," Rizzotti said. "I 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. She had a great trials. I thought she was excellent. Christyn, we put on the 19 and under championship the year before, 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. I am excited to see what they do at UConn. I think they have a bright future."
So does Rizzotti, after all these years.
COLLIER STILL GOING
Napheesa Collier's dream of making the United States team that will play in the FIBA World Cup is still alive.
UConn's senior forward is among 16 finalists for 12 roster spots, USA Basketball announced Tuesday. The 21-year-old is the youngest player remaining.
"We had a great group of pool players that gave themselves a chance to be a part of the 16, but unfortunately the committee has to get that number down," Staley said in a statement. "The committee has to form a team that can compete at the highest level, and the unit that they selected should help us accomplish that."
Collier is looking to make the senior national team for the first time. The St. Charles, Missouri, resident has represented her country with USA Basketball at three events, winning gold medals at the 2015 FIBA U-19 world championships, the 2014 FIBA Americas U-18 Championship, and the 2014 Youth Olympic Games.
She was impressive in the Red-White scrimmage in Columbia, South Carolina, last Wednesday. In an exhibition against Canada in Bridgeport last Saturday, she finished with five points, seven rebounds, three assists and a steal in a team-high 23 minutes and helped spark a Team USA fourth-quarter rally with four points, four rebounds and two assists in the final seven minutes. In the exhibition Monday night against Japan, she chipped in seven points and four rebounds in 14 minutes.
Team USA has had one player with collegiate eligibility remaining on its last three World Cup teams with UConn's Breanna Stewart (2014) and Maya Moore (2010) and Tennessee's Candace Parker (2006).
Five former Huskies - Stewart, Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, Tina Charles, and Morgan Tuck - are also among the finalists. Bird already owns a record four medals (three gold, one bronze) from the world championships.
Rounding out the finalists are Elena Delle Donne, Brittney Griner, Nneka Ogwumike, Layshia Clarendon, Jewell Loyd, Kelsey Mitchell, Tiffany Mitchell, Kelsey Plum, Elizabeth Williams, and A'ja Wilson.
The Americans will head to Antibes, France, Wednesday for a pre-World Cup event with Canada, France, and Senegal.