On Oct. 23, the Georgetown women’s basketball team held a practice in memory of Tasha Butts, hours after learning the first-year coach had died of breast cancer at 41.
Considering the circumstances, it wasn’t the right occasion for an ordinary workout. So instead of running drills, the Hoyas decorated posters, filling them with flowers, pink ribbons and some of Butts’s favorite adages: “Take full responsibility” and “Handle success like you handle failure,” among others.
Hired April 11, Butts never coached a game for Georgetown. Her funeral was Nov. 4, two days before the season opener. But her impact and memory have remained at the forefront of the Hoyas’ season. Before each practice, the Hoyas tap the posters they made the day Butts died, one of many tributes to their coach and the values she was instilling in their program.
Georgetown also has honored Butts with its play. The Hoyas entered Wednesday’s Big East opener against Seton Hall on a seven-game winning streak, their longest in seven years. They ranked second in the nation in scoring defense, limiting opponents to 46.5 points per game. After four consecutive losing seasons, Georgetown had won nine of its first 10 games, its best start since the Big East began sponsoring women’s basketball in 1982.
Facing their toughest test of the season Wednesday against the Pirates, who were coming off a 30-point rout of then-No. 23 UNLV on Saturday, the Hoyas led by as many as 21 points in the first half but fell, 57-49, at McDonough Arena. The way the Hoyas, who were picked to finish 10th out of 11 Big East teams in a preseason coaches’ poll, responded to the setback was a tribute to Butts, too.
“We don’t have moral victories here,” Georgetown interim coach Darnell Haney said. “We talk about our team being the toughest and tightest team in the gym. Seton Hall was the toughest team, and they won in a dogfight.”
As it has all season, Georgetown wore pink ribbons on its jerseys Wednesday, a commemoration of Butts’s two-year battle with breast cancer. The Hoyas continued to invoke their season-long mantra, “Tasha Tough,” which they wore on their warmup shirts, displayed on the scorer’s table and yelled to break their huddles.
People at Georgetown say “Tasha Tough” means multiple things. On one hand, it represents the mentality of a coach who used to lead afternoon practices after undergoing cancer treatment in the mornings — a coach who in the final months of her life watched film and met with assistants from her hospital bed. “Tenacity, determination, resilience,” senior guard Kelsey Ransom said.
“There’s nothing done passively,” Ransom added. “No drill, no sprint, no water break is done walking. Nothing is done in a way that isn’t tournament team-style.”
But the Hoyas also point out there was more to Butts’s toughness and the way she dealt with adversity than a steely resolve. Butts was open with her emotions. She shared with her players what becoming Georgetown’s coach meant to her — that she was grateful but also nervous. She acknowledged when her cancer treatment made her tired and when she needed her players’ energy to get through practice. For Butts, being tough meant being vulnerable.
“ ‘Tasha Tough’ doesn’t mean being rigid and not feeling,” Ransom said. “ ‘Tasha Tough’ is having the strength to cry and the strength to be hurt and feel pain. Because that’s who she was. She was going through it, but then she felt that and came in and gave what she could for that day.”
Junior forward Brianna Scott has her own tribute to this aspect of “Tasha Tough.” After undergoing offseason foot surgery, Scott was frustrated by her struggle to return to form. The advice Butts gave her is tattooed on Scott’s left arm: “Give yourself grace.”
“That really stuck with me,” Scott said. “You can struggle and you’re not going to be 100 percent all the time … but I’m going to do all I can to be there for my teammates or be there in the best way possible, like she was.”
The Hoyas’ identity, spirit and play this season have been a reflection not only of Butts but also of Haney, who was hired in May to serve as Butts’s assistant, then took over as the interim coach for the rest of the season after her death.
Before coming to Georgetown, Haney had spent almost his entire life in Florida, serving most recently as the head coach at Jacksonville University for five seasons. After he parted ways with Jacksonville in March, Haney’s original plan was to join the staff at the University of Miami, which was coming off a berth in the Elite Eight. Butts persuaded Haney to uproot his family and leave his home state.
“When I talked with Tasha about her values, and I talked with Tasha about what she believed in in the game, what she believed in developing young women … I think it matched with me,” Haney said.
Haney has been a steward of Butts’s vision through a trying season, which will enter its most competitive stretches in the months ahead.
“We feel [Butts] every day in how [Haney] operates every practice [and] game,” senior forward Graceann Bennett said. “The language and the culture is something that she started and Coach Haney has carried out really amazingly. It’s everywhere in our program.”