A10 tournament: UMass women’s basketball reache first semifinal since 2002

  • UMass sophomore guard Sydney Taylor tied a career high with 27 points against Fordham in Friday’s Atlantic 10 quarterfinals at the Siegel Center in Richmond, Va. She made her first four 3s. BRIAN MCWALTERS/ATLANTIC 10 CONFERENCE

  • UMass senior forward Sam Breen notched her 14th double-double of the season with 21 points and 11 rebounds against Fordham in Friday’s Atlantic 10 quarterfinals at the Siegel Center in Richmond, Va. BRIAN MCWALTERS/ATLANTIC 10 CONFERENCE

Staff Writer
Published: 3/12/2021 8:51:45 PM
Modified: 3/12/2021 8:51:43 PM

Sydney Taylor locked eyes with Sam Breen.

The leading scorers on the UMass women’s basketball team’s played football for the final six seconds of the third quarter against Fordham in the Atlantic 10 quarterfinals on Friday.

Taylor faked like she was setting a pick and streaked up the floor on a go route. Breen grabbed a defensive rebound then let a deep pass fly from her left hand. Taylor tracked it over her shoulder and finished a layup without a dribble as the buzzer sounded.

“I thought that was the one that literally changed the momentum of the game,” UMass head coach Tory Verdi said. “I think Fordham thought they were scoring at the buzzer.”

Instead of a Rams bucket cutting the Minutewomen’s lead to one possession, Taylor’s bucket gave UMass a seven-point lead to start the fourth quarter.

The seventh-seeded Minutewomen held No. 2 Fordham at bay in the final frame and won 80-70 to advance to the A-10 semifinals for the first time since 2002. Two UMass players, freshmen Stefanie Kulesza and Makennah White, weren’t even born the last time the program reached this point.

UMass will face either No. 3 Saint Louis or No. 6 Richmond in the semifinal at 4 p.m. Saturday on CBS Sports. The Minutewomen beat both teams once during the regular season.

“It goes to show you, you’ve got players that believe in one another and believe in what we’re doing,” Verdi said. “They have a ton of fight, and they love what they’re doing. They’re talented, there’s no question about that, but they’re showing the country who they are as players and as people, their character and how hard they work together.”

The quarterfinal victory also marked back to back wins over the Rams for the first time since winning four in a row from 2006-10. Fordham knocked UMass out of two of the past three conference tournaments. The Minutewomen hadn’t beaten the Rams in the A-10 tournament before Friday’s win at the Siegel Center in Richmond, Va.

“I feel like we’ve been counted out a lot this season and people don’t realize how much talent we have on this team,” Taylor said, a sophomore.

The Minutewomen (13-6) have needed to rely on their talent in Richmond, as they only have two bench players. Four players played at least 35 minutes for the second time in two days. Breen didn’t go to the bench once in UMass’ overtime win against Saint Joseph’s on Thursday, and the senior forward played all 40 minutes against the Rams.

She got stronger as the game went on, scoring 10 of her 21 points on 4-for-4 shooting in the fourth quarter. Breen added 11 rebounds for her 14th double-double of the season.

Fordham scored four points in a row to open the final frame then cut UMass’ lead to 3 with 8 minutes, 12 seconds left. The Minutewomen ripped off a 9-3 run capped by Breen squeezing a layup between two defenders after an offensive rebound.

“When a play is run for you, you really don’t want to mess it up,” Breen said. “I missed a few pretty easy ones early on.”

Taylor picked up the slack. She made her first four 3s, scoring 14 points in the opening 13 minutes as the Minutewomen built a six-point lead. 

Fordham fought back. The Rams took a 37-34 lead at halftime behind 15 first-half points from Anna DeWolf. They scored 14 of those points off 13 UMass turnovers. The Minutewomen didn’t make a field goal for the second quarter’s final 4:04.

“We harped on that at halftime, cleaning that up and being smarter with the ball,” Breen said. 

UMass only turned the ball over three times in the second half and outscored the Rams by 13 across the third and fourth quarters.

Taylor tied her career high with 27 points. White added 10 points despite struggling with foul trouble early.

Her two fouls in the game’s first five minutes further tightened UMass’ constricted bench. Verdi turned to two freshmen: Angelique Ngalakulondi and  Kulesza to fill the gaps.

Ngalakulondi scored six points with five rebounds in 17 minutes, while Kulesza was playing in just her second collegiate game after graduating high school early and added eight minutes off the bench.

“(Ngalakulondi) just needed the opportunity to get reps and game minutes. She’s going through a maturation process,” Verdi said. “Now she has the opportunity and she’s taking advantage of it. We threw her in the fire and she’s doing a tremendous job.”

Three UMas players finished with four fouls and two had three by the end of the game, but none fouled out. Fordham ran into the opposite problem late in the fourth quarter. The Rams trailed UMass by 10 with 2:23 left after a Breen layup. They’d only committed one team foul in the second half and had to grab whichever Minutewomen was closest to get into the bonus and extend the game.

With 1:57 left, UMass broke pressure by throwing White the ball in the backcourt. She passed it to Ber’Nyah Mayo, who cut to the middle of the floor as Kendell Heremaia plowed into DeWolf’s face. She left the floor as arena staff cleaned blood off it. DeWolf was taken to the hospital after the game.

UMass extended its lead to 15 with 1:23 left after two Breen free throws then partied like it was 2002 when the final buzzer sounded.

“We have a short roster here, so we’re doing it all for each other,” Breen said. “I wouldn’t want to do it with anyone else.”

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