Sam Breen making immediate impact for UMass women’s basketball

  • UMass forward Sam Breen defends against Southern Connecticut State’s Alexa Kellner during the Minutewomen’s 86-43 win on Monday, at the Mullins Center. Thom Kendall/UMass Athletics

  • UMass forward Sam Breen takes a shot during the Minutewomen’s 86-43 win over Southern Connecticut State on Monday at the Mullins Center. Thom Kendall/UMass Athletics

Staff Writer
Published: 1/1/2020 3:41:31 PM

AMHERST – Paige McCormick flexed her right bicep to show off the bruises that surrounded the area around her elbow. Sam Breen tried to do the same, but a long-sleeved white shirt hid her scars from past practices.

For the past year, McCormick has battled day after day with Breen in the post, trading blows with a player anxiously awaiting her turn on the court. The bruises on her arm are the proof of just how hard Breen and McCormick have pushed each other over the last year.

Yet only one of those players was able to play. While McCormick re-entered the starting lineup this season as a junior, Breen sat and waited for her chance to don the Minutewomen's jersey after joining the program last December.

Per NCAA rules, Breen had to sit out the second half of last season after transferring from Penn State, but UMass and Breen were hopeful that she might earn a waiver from the NCAA to be eligible at the beginning of this season. She had only played in four games for the Nittany Lions and there was hope the NCAA would count it as her redshirt season. But the request was denied, so she continued to be sidelined until Dec. 21 at Iona, the Minutewomen's first game after the first semester ended.

“It definitely wasn't easy, but the atmosphere here, I would take sitting a year here waiting to play over anything else,” Breen said. “My confidence got back up, I’m just so much happier here. Sitting here, helping my teammates get better, them helping me get better, it wasn't as hard as you might think with the people we have.”

During her time away from game action, Breen probably made the most impact on McCormick, who has made noticeable improvements from last season. After only averaging 10 minutes per game last year, McCormick has started all 13 games for the Minutewomen so far this season. In the non-conference portion of the schedule, the junior is averaging career highs with 8.2 points and 5.5 rebounds per game as the fourth guard in the UMass lineup.

Some of that improvement can be attributed to the daily battles between Breen and McCormick at practice that have left both of them bruised. After watching Breen attack practice for a year, McCormick said the entire team was anxious to get the forward in uniform after everything she had been through in the past year.

“She’s been putting in all the hard work that whole year off,” McCormick said after Monday's 86-43 win over Southern Connecticut State. “She's been making me better, I know that for a fact. We go at each other in practice, and it’s totally worth it. She shined tonight and it was so nice to have her on the Mullins court.” 

Monday’s victory was Breen’s first chance to perform in front of the home fans, and she did not disappoint against an outmatched Division II opponent. Breen scored a game-high 28 points and grabbed 11 rebounds for her first career double-double.

Statistics aside, the 6-foot-1 forward showcased a complete grasp on both ends of the floor. She was in the right position most of the time on defense and she battled incredibly hard for rebounds, coming up with several of them by outworking the opposition. 

“The same things we saw (Monday) from Sam Breen, I see it each and every day at practice,” coach Tory Verdi said. “We were hoping she would have gotten that waiver early on in the semester, but that didn’t happen, so I’m just happy to have her moving forward into the A10 schedule.”

Although Breen’s skills – especially when it comes to scoring – were well-known, her performances after playing just four games in a year and a half were still a bit surprising. Many mid-year transfers need a few games in order to integrate themselves in the rotation and rediscover their form. Yet, Breen came one rebound and one basket short of a double-double in her UMass debut against Iona, finishing with eight points and nine rebounds.

Breen deflected a lot of the credit to Verdi for her early success, saying at the coach was instrumental in helping her after the waiver was declined. When the last-ditch effort failed, it gave her a timeline at least for returning to playing the sport she loves, and that also helped speed up the process for her.

“When that didn’t go through, he really helped me keep my confidence up and not get too down on myself,” Breen said. “That kind of made the time go faster, too, because I treated practices as my game day, and obviously we have a lot of practice, so it was a lot of game days for me.”

Breen’s return to the court could not come soon enough for UMass (10-3), which enters Saturday’s Atlantic 10 opener at Duquesne on a seven-game winning streak. In addition to being another healthy body Verdi can trust in the rotation, Breen is a unique scoring threat that teams must account for on the floor. She’s a true triple threat that opponents will need to gameplan around.

Breen made four of her five 3-point attempts, splashing them from all from beyond the men's 3-point line on the court. She looked confident with her mid-range jump shots, many of which went down smoothly as well. And of course, she can bang in the post at 6-1 and finish around the rim. 

Those attributes complement Verdi’s guard-heavy lineups well, and will force A10 foes to make difficult choices when guarding the Minutewomen.

“If you look at what teams have been doing to us lately, a lot of teams are playing us a lot of zone,” Verdi said. “They looked at the early film and saw when teams played us man, we were able to put the ball on the floor and attack them and get to the rim. A lot of teams were forcing us to shoot perimeter shots, we weren’t shooting them all that great, but now you add Sam into the mix, we’ve got four shooters on the floor at any given time.”

“It's like a whole other dimension,” McCormick added. “It’s almost like a secret weapon going into conference play.”

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