Historic win as UMass women’s basketball rallies past Fordham for 21st victory

  • Sam Breen goes up for a layup against Fordham on Wednesday night’s game at the Mullins Center.  CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS

  • Ber’Nyah Mayo throws the ball up against Fordham on Wednesday night at the Mullins Center.  CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS

Staff Writer
Published: 2/16/2022 10:15:41 PM
Modified: 2/16/2022 10:13:49 PM

AMHERST – Wednesday’s game against Fordham had some serious consequences for the UMass women’s basketball team as the Atlantic 10 Conference tournament draws nearer.

Both teams went into the Mullins Center with identical 7-3 conference records, and the Minutewomen needed a win to stay near the top of the conference leaderboard after dropping games to powerhouses Rhode Island and Dayton earlier in the season.

When it mattered most, the Minutewomen managed to earn a ‘W,’ eking out a 60-57 victory against the Rams despite going into halftime with a 13-point deficit. The win was their 21st of the season, which set a new program record – they improved to 21-5 overall. 

The milestone moment had head coach Tory Verdi looking back during the postgame press conference to when he first took over the program six years ago. 

“Just watching us face the adversity (tonight) and not quit – six years ago, we quit. We never fought the adversity six years ago, we couldn't win on the road six years ago,” Verdi said. “We go to Saint Louis, we lose by 35. I think I put a tweet out there that this won't happen again… It's never happened again. To win in this fashion is truly special.”

The goal hasn’t changed for the Minutewomen – to win a title – but earning a historic win during the road there is something that was still meaningful for the team. 

“Our main goal is to win the championship. If we make history on the way, then so be it, but our main focus is to get where you want to be, in the championship game,” Philoxy said. “But it feels good though to make history and be part of it. It’s a good feeling.” 

Sam Breen quietly had a monster game for the Minutewomen, securing her 16th double-double of the year with 21 points and 14 boards. Fordham’s Kendell Heremaia had herself a huge night offensively, posting 35 points and nearly single-handedly winning the game for the Rams.

As they’re wont to due at home, the Minutewomen struggled in the opening period. Heremaia knocked down back-to-back 3-pointers to give the Rams a 14-4 early lead and forced UMass head coach Tory Verdi to call a timeout at 5:07 in the first quarter. 

Though the Minutewomen were able to get a layup out of their timeout, Heremaia and the Rams kept cruising. UMass couldn’t find its groove offensively, shooting just 23.8 percent while Fordham knocked down 50 percent of their shots in the first quarter, putting up five three-pointers for good measure. 

Midway through the second quarter, the Minutewomen had a scare on the court as guard Destiney Philoxy rolled her ankle on a play and went down with 4:06 remaining in the period. The senior limped off the court, but was quickly bandaged up and back on the floor less than three minutes after the injury looking no worse for wear.

The home team was able to keep pace better in the second quarter, but couldn’t close the gap. The Rams still managed to outscore the Minutewomen 14-13, and the Heremaia train kept rolling. She finished the first quarter with 14 points, and closed out the half with 22 points and seven boards; seven of her field goals were from behind the arc. 

“I think our biggest thing was not giving her wide open looks,” Breen said of Heremaia. “If she's gonna hit tough shots with a hand in her face, we'll have to live with that because what else can you really do? But it was really the wide open ones that she was getting that we could have probably controlled a little bit more. But once we got out of that and realized that (we needed to) just play our game, she'll hit some shots and we can hit some shots, too.”

After halftime, the Minutewomen came back with a more focused demeanor, going shot-for-shot with the Rams. UMass put up 20 points to Fordham’s 15 in the third quarter, and perhaps more importantly, held Heremaia to just two three-pointers. The Minutewomen’s shooting percentage skyrocketed back up to 56.3 percent in the third period, a much-needed boost for the home team. 

In classic UMass fashion, when the team’s back was against a wall, the Minutewomen delivered. UMass opened the fourth quarter with a 5-0 run to close the gap to just three points, which forced the Rams to take a timeout. 

With 7:51 remaining in the fourth quarter, UMass took the lead back for the first time since the opening quarter courtesy of a Sydney Taylor layup. From there, they extended their run to 8-0 before Fordham managed to sink a basket. The Rams missed 17 field goal opportunities before Heremaia hit another three with 3:25 remaining in the fourth period, making it a 55-54 game. 

Breen was money in the paint late, hitting back-to-back layups to keep UMass in front. Philoxy went to the free-throw line with 1:46 remaining in the game and sank both shots to extend their lead to 59-54.

Fordham called a timeout with 1:42 remaining, and Heremaia hit her 11th 3 of the game with 1:20 left to go, pulling the Rams within two points. With 13 seconds left, Ber’Nyah Mayo was called for an offensive foul that gave Fordham back possession.

It was over in a moment – with the game on the line, Fordham dished the ball to Heremaia, who went for a triple that didn’t fall. The Rams’ Kaitlyn Downey was whistled for a foul that turned the ball over to UMass with 1.4 seconds left, and the Minutewomen held on for the impressive victory.

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