Building a champion: Destiney Philoxy grew into the point guard UMass women’s basketball needed

  • “Her energy is infectious. And, you know, how can you not get excited, you know, with the things that she does,” coach Tory Verdi said of his senior point guard, Destiney Philoxy. CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS

  • UMass senior guard Destiney Philoxy has become more of an outside shooting threat throughout her career as a Minutewoman. CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS

  • “Her energy is infectious. And, you know, how can you not get excited, you know, with the things that she does,” UMass women's basketball coach Tory Verdi said of his senior point guard Destiney Philoxy. CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS

  • ”Nobody knew me at that time. I was just a lefty,” said UMass point guard Destiney Philoxy, who has made an ind CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS

  • UMass point guard Destiney Philoxy led the Atlantic 10 with 5.7 assists per game. She helps her teammates with more than open shots, though. CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS—

  • The UConn women’s team celebrates their No. 12 seed in the NCAA Tournament last Sunday. From left are coach Tory Verdi, Angelique Ngalakulondi, Ber’Nyah Mayo, Destiney Philoxy, Sam Breen, Sydney Taylor and Natousha Harden. STAFF PHOTO/KYLE GRABOWSKI

  • UMass head coach Tory Verdi cuts down the net after his team beat Dayton to win the Atlantic 10 championship on Sunday in WIlmington, Del. PHOTO BY GREG FIUME/ATLANTIC 10

  • GREG FIUME/ATLANTIC 10 CONFERENCEUMass women’s basketball coach Tory Verdi is enjoying his program’s first-ever Atlantic 10 championship. GREG FIUME/ATLANTIC 10 CONFERENCE

Staff Writer
Published: 3/18/2022 6:11:37 PM

AMHERST — The scar on Destiney Philoxy’s right hand remains, an occasional reminder just below her thumb.

Very little about her resembles the freshman that punched a sliding glass door in Boyden Gymnasium out of frustration in early December 2018. The shards sliced her hand bad enough to send her to the hospital. An assistant coach took Philoxy to Cooley Dickinson and called Tory Verdi, UMass’ head coach in his third season at the time.

Verdi was out to dinner with UMass athletic director Ryan Bamford, hockey coach Greg Carvel, then-newly hired football coach Walt Bell and then-men’s basketball coach Matt McCall. His phone rang, and Verdi left the dinner.

He stayed in the hospital all night with Philoxy, then a shy, insecure player that didn’t always exert maximum effort on the court or in the classroom. Verdi was still there at 3 a.m., right about when Philoxy realized he did care about her and began to understand how much.

She wouldn’t be in Massachusetts without him. 

“I really didn’t know nothing about UMass when I came here. I committed because of coach Verdi and the environment I was in. I always wanted to help build something,” Philoxy said. “I was never part of something that was down and coming up. I didn’t see myself as being a part of this, but I was. I had to get used to it and adapt to it. And I did.”

Three and a half years after that silent acknowledgement in a hospital bed, Verdi and his senior point guard Philoxy have built the Minutewomen into champions and brought the program to its first NCAA Tournament in more than two decades. Few believed in either of them when they arrived in Amherst.

He bet on a left-handed New York City point guard on the small side. She bet on a program’s blank slab of marble and the man who saw the statues within.

Jackpot.

When the Minutewomen  finally open the NCAA Tournament against Notre Dame in Norman, Oklahoma, (7:30 p.m. Saturday on ESPN2), Atlantic 10 Player of the Year Sam Breen will be their best player. Sydney Taylor will be their best shooter. Sophomore point guard Ber’Nyah Mayo is their future. Philoxy is their heartbeat.

‘Always second’

Verdi didn’t even mean to recruit Destiney Philoxy. He was watching her older sister Selena Philoxy when they both played for the New York Gauchos AAU program. Selena was a bigger guard and older, so she could make a more immediate impact for a struggling UMass program. Then Destiney came on at the end of the game.

The diminutive, ultra-athletic point guard’s ability to change speeds caught Verdi’s eye. He offered her a scholarship the following year. The plan was to bring in athleticism and develop a foothold in New York.

“I knew she was better than the talent that we had here already, so for me it was a no-brainer,” Verdi said.

Philoxy didn’t have any other offers at the time. At various times, she shared the court with All-American Brianna Foster (who eventually played at Maryland and then professionally overseas), Earlette Scott (who committed to Providence and transferred to Stony Brook), her sister Selena, and others who matriculated to the Division I level.

“People were sleeping on me. My name always came second. Or third,” Destiney Philoxy said. “They would always name other people first and be like ‘don’t forget Destiney Philoxy.’  I feel like I should’ve been named before anyone else. I took that to heart.”

Verdi acknowledged her frustration on her visit. While Philoxy was surrounded by “animals and all the other stuff” in a place she initially thought was going to be the middle of nowhere, he told her something that changed both her life and UMass women’s basketball history.

“He said to me on my visit, ‘remember who believed when nobody did.’ Him saying that opened my eyes,” Philoxy said. “Nobody knew me at that time. I was just a lefty. I was a mediocre regular. He saw more in me than I seen in myself. He said that, and I realized I should be here.”

‘A dynamic relationship’

The Destiney Philoxy that stepped on campus in 2018 is nearly indistinguishable from the Minutewomen’s current co-captain. Both are listed at 5-foot-7, but that freshman had a lot to learn.

“She was shy, she was insecure,” Verdi said. “This was all new to her. Through the course of her high school, I think things were handed to her. She didn’t have to work for it. Her experiences here, she was challenged and she was held accountable as well.”

Philoxy initially thought Verdi didn’t like her and was being deliberately harsh with her. It had nothing to do with liking or disliking. She needed to understand the expectations Verdi was trying to establish.

“My job is not only to prepare her as a player, but to prepare her for life and to go out into society and be successful.  So showing up late to class, I’m going to have a problem with that. Not playing hard on the court, I’m going to have a problem with that,” he said.

“She was kind of thrown for that because in high school she had an opportunity where she could kind of get through things, and that wasn’t going to work here.”

Her ‘aha’ moment came with her hand stitched and Verdi sitting in a never-comfortable-enough hospital chair. He needed more from her, a level she wasn’t sure existed.

“I’m not going to lie, he gave me a vision that I couldn’t see,” Philoxy said. “He saw something in me that I never saw in myself.”

She missed three games with the hand injury her freshman year, and UMass finished an even .500. The Minutewomen tied a program record her sophomore year with 20 victories and reached the A-10 quarterfinals.

Philoxy became more and more integral with each passing year. Last season when she was a junior, the coaching staff asked her to be a captain. She rejected the title because she didn’t believe in herself enough to take it.

Verdi’s vision remained clear. He asked her again around the midseason mark because she was already a leader and doing most of the things a captain would anyway. If she took the title it could help the team in more ways than she realized. Verdi told her they could adjust if she really didn’t want it after trying.

“It took me out of my comfort zone. It was weird at first, but once I got used to it, it was the same. Captain’s just a title. Captain and leader are the same thing. It’s been hard, though,” Philoxy said. “I’m good at it, why not keep it?”

She was named to UMass’ leadership group officially Jan. 14, 2021 amid last year’s COVID-ravaged schedule. By then she’d already taken then-freshman guard Ber’Nyah Mayo under her wing and kept the team organized for meetings.

“Keeping me sane and helping me get through the year,” Mayo said. “Always being in my ear being positive. Letting me know I’m gonna get through it. It might be tough now, but the end goal will be all worth it.”

The Minutewomen nearly reached that end goal of raising championship banners. They made the A-10 championship game as a No. 7 seed playing with just seven players after late transfers out of the program, falling to a VCU team they’d beaten already. Philoxy was devastated.

“We know what it’s like to reach the top and get knocked down,” she said. “Now that we know, we learned from it, and we’re growing.”

Cornerstone

Few have grown more than Philoxy. Her big sister Selena, the first choice, barely recognizes her when she watches UMass play.

“This is a whole new Destiney. I’ve never seen her play like this,” Selena said. “Her attitude, her game, she’s so different now.”

She’s become more of a threat shooting the ball both from distance and pulling up. Her confidence in her right hand — scar and all — has grown. Philoxy also takes more charges than anyone on the team, and maybe anyone in the country.

“It’s taught. I don’t think it was embraced her freshman year at all because she’s a lightweight and I’m not sure getting plowed over nightly is something she enjoys,” Verdi said. “But it was something she’s embraced. They’re momentum changers.”

When the Minutewomen need a big play, Breen will tell her, “Destiney, I feel a charge coming up.”

“She knows exactly where to be. That’s something I absolutely admire,” Breen said. “I wish I was able to take charges like that. It’s kind of an intangible thing. It’s unconscious for her. She’s never going to run away from anything, never going to shy away from anything.”

Her sacrifice motivates the other Minutewomen. It makes Mayo want to go grab a steal or sacrifice with her.

“She’s literally leaving it all on the floor,” Mayo said.

They wouldn’t do it for just anyone. Philoxy has built relationships with every member of the team and much of the coaching staff. She’s become more of herself over the past few years, and her openness gives the Minutewomen permission to be themselves, too.

Philoxy makes everyone laugh and shares her knowledge and experience freely.

“How can you not get excited, you know, with the things that she does, and so, she’s ultra competitive. She brings out the best in everybody else around her,” Verdi said. “I love coaching her.”

Philoxy loves him, too. She called him dad during the Minutewomen’s NCAA Tournament selection show watch party.

“She has left her mark on this program,” Verdi said. “There's no question about it.”

The program left its mark on her, too. After UMass clinched its first A-10 title and cut down the nets, the Minutewomen gathered in their Chase Fieldhouse locker room. They doused Verdi in water and Gatorade, drenching his gray champions T-shirt.

He told the entire team he was proud of them and that he loved them.

“Don’t make me cry, c’mon, c’mon,” Philoxy responded.

Verdi looked at Philoxy, championship hat brim pulled low to her eyebrows. He reminded her that she didn’t know where Massachusetts was her freshman year.

“You didn’t even know where you were,” he said.

“I didn’t,” she said, her voice jumping an octave and threatening to break as she doubled over.

All she knew then was that she was in the middle of nowhere. There was plenty of space to build something.


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