UMass women’s basketball team sets focus on Atlantic 10 Tournament

  • Ber’Nyah Mayo and the UMass women’s basketball team will begin Atlantic 10 Tournament play on Friday with a quarterfinal game against an opponent to be determined. CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS

Staff Writer 
Published: 2/28/2022 6:06:15 PM
Modified: 2/28/2022 6:06:10 PM

All year long the refrain from UMass women’s basketball head coach Tory Verdi has been the same – this is a team that wants to win a championship. They came heartbreakingly close last season despite a number of obstacles, making it all the way to the Atlantic 10 title game with just seven players on their roster before losing to VCU in the championship, 81-69.

At last, the opportunity for redemption is finally here. UMass wrapped up its regular season with a convincing 74-62 win on the road against Saint Louis. It ends the season with a 23-6 record, a new program best for wins in a single season, and a stellar 11-4 mark in conference play.

With that conference record, the Minutewomen earned the No. 3 ranking in the A-10 Tournament, which will be held at Chase Fieldhouse in Wilmington, Delaware. As a result, they’ve earned byes through the first two rounds of the tournament. Their first game will be on Friday at 7:30 ET, where they’ll play either No. 6 Fordham, No. 11 Saint Louis, or No. 14 George Mason. 

At the beginning of the regular season, the Minutewomen looked invincible. The team opened their season with an eight-game winning streak, and took then-No. 13 Iowa State to the brink in the finals of the Gulf City Showcase in a 76-71 loss; it was the first time in that tournament’s history that a non-Power 5 school had made it to the championship game.

They even made national headlines, getting votes in three consecutive weeks in the USA Today's Sports Women's Basketball Coaches Poll in early January, the first time the team received a vote in a national poll since the 1994-95 season. 

But it hasn't been smooth sailing in A-10 play. The Minutewomen dropped two games to Rhode Island and one to Dayton, the two teams seeded above them at the A-10 tournament, and then were also upset by Davidson – the No. 9 seed in the bracket. What they’ll need if they want to make it back to the top of the A-10 is consistency, something that the team has struggled with during conference play. Whether it’s a slow start or miscommunication on the floor, the Minutewomen have sometimes struggled with putting together a full 40-minute effort.

That’s not always a problem – UMass is loaded with talent, starting with senior point guard Destiney Philoxy, who collected her 1,000th career point and 500th career assists this season. There’s sophomore Ber’Nyah Mayo, who’s started every game since her freshman season, providing a sneaky calm, cool, and collected demeanor on the hardwood, and Angelique Ngalakolundi, who’s earned a starting spot off the bench and can dominate in the paint.

Sharp-shooter Sydney Taylor is unstoppable when she’s hot and has been expanding her game beyond just the arc, and of course, there’s the ever-consistent Sam Breen. Breen is tied for 11th in the nation in double doubles, collecting a whopping 17 this season, and also scored her 1,000th career point this season. Makennah White has been a reliable presence off the bench after starting the season, along with Stefanie Kulesza, who started to get more steady minutes as the season progressed.

It remains to be seen whether Kulesza will suit up for the tournament – she went down with an injury to her hand in early February that required surgery. Verdi said last week that she’s progressing in her recovery, but there’s not a specific date yet for her return. 

If the Minutewomen want to fight for a title again, they’ll need to bring energy and strong communication to the floor. Taylor is lights-out when she’s on, but that play has been streaky at times. Breen, well-known among her A-10 opponents, has sometimes been double-teamed and limited in the number of shots she’s taken, and goes through dry spells just like the rest of us mortals. And of course, the Minutewomen have to establish themselves on the boards early. One of their strengths has been out-rebounding opponents, and when they struggle in the post, that often reflects the final scoreboard. 

If the Minutewomen can remember who they are as a team, they should get through their quarterfinal matchup. If they do, they’ll face No. 2 Rhode Island in the semis, and that’s where the real test will begin. At this point in the season, the Minutewomen need to win the A-10 tournament if they want to dance in the NCAA tourney. With both Dayton and Rhode Island ahead of them in regular season conference rankings, it’s unlikely that UMass will get an at-large bid, even with the expanded 68-team bracket.

The semifinals are set for Saturday and the championship game is Sunday at 2 p.m. on ESPN2.

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