Minutewomen set for key A-10 battle with Rhode Island

Staff writer
Published: 1/25/2022 9:25:21 PM
Modified: 1/25/2022 9:24:12 PM

After a team-wide bout with COVID-19 that put everyone on the sidelines for two weeks and a hectic schedule that kept players both tired and on their toes, UMass women’s basketball head coach Tory Verdi thinks his squad is finally back on the upswing.

The Minutewomen (15-4, 3-2 Atlantic 10) host league-leading Rhode Island (15-3, 9-0) Wednesday night at the Mullins Center (7 p.m., NESN-Plus).

“I think we're turning the corner. I'm really excited about [Wednesday’s] game because we didn’t really have court time (to prepare) the last time we played against Rhode Island, so we've had a couple days to prepare,” Verdi said. “We're coming off a regular schedule, had a day off, had two days to prep... I think that COVID is behind us, we're turning the corner, and I'm super excited to see what lies ahead.”

The Minutewomen have hardly had time to catch their collective breath, playing five games in the last 11 days, four of those on the road, all while coming back from the holiday break and recovering from illness. Finally, they’ve had a chance to pause and reset after Saturday's win at George Washington, a much-needed break as they prepare for their rematch against the Rams.

“It was great physically to have a day off and just be able to rest, and I feel like we're not in as much of a rush as we were before. I feel like we were going from game to game to game, and we never really get time to just decompress,” UMass’ Stefanie Kulesza said. “But now we're back home, we’re practicing in our own gym… I think that's helped us a lot.” 

This game, more so than the team’s first bout against the Rams earlier this month, should give everyone a better idea of where the Minutewomen stand against their A-10 foes. Their first contest at Rhode Island resulted in a 66-58 loss that capped a three-game road trip where they were still finding their footing. Now, the team has had three days to more adequately prepare for whatever Rhode Island will throw at them. Specifically, Verdi said that the team has been working on their offensive attack against the Rams’ 2-3 zone, as well as their transition defense. He expects it to be a close battle between the two squads. 

“They're so physical, so you’ve got to match their physicality, and they do a great job on the boards. So you’ve got to match that physicality in effort and grind it out, if you will. It's not easy,” Verdi said. “They have tremendous length and size. So when you talk about the offensive side of the ball, we’ve got to make them have to move. They’ve got to cover ground and our guards have got to do a better job of attacking the gaps and getting to the rim and finishing. So we've worked on that, and I expect us to be much more poised {Wednesday} offensively than we were in the past.”

The Minutewomen will, of course, rely on their typical starters to bring their A-game against their A-10 foe. Sydney Taylor is just a few games removed from a career-high 32-point game, and while she can be streaky at times, she’s proven time and again this season that she’s a force to be reckoned with, currently sitting seventh in A-1o scoring. Destiney Philoxy leads the conference in assists with 101, good for 18th overall in the nation, Angelique Ngalakulondi is second in the A-10 in offensive rebounds per game (4.1) and total offensive rebounds (77), and Verdi called fellow starter Ber’Nyah Mayo one of his most reliable players, saying that “ I know what I'm gonna get from Ber’Nyah each and every single night.”

And of course, there's Sam Breen, who was just named the A-10’s Player of the Week for the fifth time of her career. The graduate student averaged 21.3 points and 12.7 rebounds in three games, and is currently tied for sixth in the nation with 12 double-doubles on the season. She's also been working with recently named associate head coach Mike Leflar to up her game even more.

“I've been really working with Coach Leflar on some more counter moves and stuff inside the post. I think I've been utilizing those more and finishing on those better. So I think that's helped me a lot,” Breen said on her recent playing success. “And then, just a confidence thing. I just think the few weeks off was a little bit stagnant. Coming back and getting back into it, my confidence has gone up.”

As the Minutewomen continue A-10 play, it’ll also be worth watching to see which players from off the bench Verdi utilizes as the team continues their search for more depth. Makennah White has been a reliable player for the team all year, and though Shavonne Smith hasn’t received as many minutes over the last couple contests, is often a go-to bench player for the Minutewomen. Kulesza, a freshman, has also started getting more regular minutes in the last two games, and Michelle Pruitt could find the floor again after playing briefly against Dayton.


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