UMass basketball: Makennah White finding her voice with the Minutewomen

By HANNAH BEVIS 

Staff Writer 

Published: 03-02-2023 3:13 PM

Everyone has a role to play on the UMass women’s basketball team.

Ber’Nyah Mayo, the cool and calm junior who never loses her head, is the team’s analytical mind. Two-time Atlantic 10 Player of the Year Sam “Queen” Breen is the soul of the Minutewomen. Destiney Philoxy, the fiery guard from Queens, is undoubtedly the team’s heart.

But perhaps one of the most overlooked and essential members of the Minutewomen this season is Makennah White, who serves as the team’s voice.

If you’ve been to a UMass game this year, chances are you’ve heard White’s voice echoing throughout the Mullins Center, whether she’s communicating with her teammates on the floor or cheering them on relentlessly from the sidelines. It perhaps comes as no surprise that before she wanted to be a basketball player, White wanted to be a cheerleader, putting her boisterous spirit and tireless vocal cords to work.

“I started playing (basketball) because I was a lot taller than everyone… a lot of my friends were playing at the time so I joined based off of that,” White said. “I did not like basketball at first. I wanted to be a cheerleader. That was my thing… the more I started to play and the more relationships that I've built with the coaching staff and my teammates, I began to fall in love with it.”

That’s been good news this season for the top-seeded Minutewomen (24-5), which begin their Atlantic 10 Conference Tournament title defense on Friday at 11 a.m. in the quarterfinals against No. 9 George Mason (ESPN-Plus). White has always been the first player off the bench for UMass, though with the numbers she’s been putting up, she could easily be a starter. She’s averaging 9.6 points per game and 5.7 rebounds a game, but beyond those numbers comes the energy she brings to the team. UMass runs a short bench on the best of days, and having a reliable player like White to go in and inject a boost of energy on the floor has proven invaluable for the Minutewomen.

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“She's the type of player that is going to allow who she is and that energy that she brings to be infectious. As far as the locker room part, I know that she cares about her teammates tremendously and relationships are important to her,” UMass head coach Tory Verdi said. “But I think what she does on the court, bringing that energy and that want to, that competitive spirit, is so valuable.”

White’s energy and talent caught the attention of a number of college coaches, but her recruiting process was unusual. Because she got to the game a little late, interest didn’t really pick up until after she joined her second AAU team, the Western PA Bruins. White said her life changed after she started playing with the Bruins, with dozens of college coaches calling her and asking her to come play for them. She took all five of her official visits, looking at James Madison, Eastern Michigan, Duquesne, Fordham and UMass. The Minutewomen were right on the cusp of their upswing, and in addition to the winds of change blowing around the campus, White was drawn to the coaching staff and their promises to be honest with her. 

“Just talking to the coaching staff and [assistant] coach (Mike) Leflar, my position coach, getting that reassurance that when you get here, what you see is what you get… we’re going to be up front with you,” White said. “Coach Verdi, he always preaches being transparent and since day one, it's been very transparent, it’s been very open. This is what we’re looking for, and whatever you’re looking for, we’re going to try and do our best to give it to you.” 

It seemed like it would be a smooth transition from her wildly successful high school career at West Middlesex (Penn.) to her college career, but that was not what White found when she arrived. Playing at her high school, White was a big fish in a small pond, and while she got a taste of playing against high-level competition with her AAU teams, college was a whole other world.

On top of that, she had to adjust to an entirely new life — a new team, new coaches, classes, living in Amherst, and everything else that comes with being a college student. It was a difficult time for her, especially because her freshman year coincided with the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, and during a tumultuous time for the program.

“My first year — wow. I had to grow up,” White said. “I had to really learn that this was no longer high school. In high school, you can get away with a lot… but when you get to college, it's more of a growing pain with the basketball because of the level of basketball. Basketball is very time consuming, but so is school. Trying to find that balance and being able to separate each category in my life, whether it was basketball, or if it was school, or if it was my social life, having to separate all that and grow within that was very challenging.”

During that difficult year, White leaned a lot on Mayo, who was the only other freshman who came into the program with her that season. The two could not be more different — White wears her heart on her sleeve, while Mayo is so calm that it can be hard to tell what she’s feeling at any point in time. Despite the differences, the two are nearly inseparable now, and as White grew closer to Mayo, her teammates and the coaching staff her freshman year, she started to understand that they all cared for her and wanted the best.

“We're from two different situations. So for [White], she kind of felt as though I didn't understand. But then she finally realized that I’m there for her and I understood the situation and I wanted what's best for her,” Mayo said. “I was there to tell her to keep going, keep her head up and just grind it out.”

It was the same with Verdi, a coach who has always been open about how much he loves his team and wants the best for them.

“With Makennah, it was always a trust thing, her really getting to know me and trust in me,” Verdi said. “When I tell her that I care about her and I want to make sure that she's successful, both on and off the court — I think sometimes she doesn't understand why somebody would care that much about her and making sure that she's doing everything to be successful.” 

It was a long road to get there, and White says it’s really only this year that she feels like she’s finally arrived. She feels like she’s got things more figured out — basketball, school, her social life and her faith, something that has been present her entire life and that she says has been a crucial part of her success this year.

With the trust, the teammates and the talent all there for White, it seems like the sky is the limit for the junior. And no matter where she goes from here, one thing is certain — you’ll be able to hear her coming from a mile away. 

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