Sam Breen takes long journey to success with UMass women’s basketball team

  • Sam Breen looks to pass the ball during the A-10 conference championship game against Dayton on March 6, 2022. CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS—

  • Sam Breen lets a shot go against the Dayton Flyers in the A-10 conference championship game on March 6, 2022.  CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS—

  • UMass star Sam Breen, right, celebrates a basket against the Dayton in the Atlantic 10 conference championship game on March 6.  CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS

Staff Writer
Published: 3/18/2022 8:05:58 PM

Before she scored her 1,000th career point at UMass, before she was named the A-10 Player of the Year, before she led her team to their first A-10 conference championship in program history, Sam Breen was ready to walk away from the game for good.

It’s hard to imagine. Looking at Breen now, she’s the picture of confidence. When she walks out onto the floor, she owns the court, and both her teammates and her opponents know it. But it wasn’t always that way.

“With Sam, I’m not gonna lie – when she came here, her confidence was shattered,” head coach Tory Verdi said. “She didn’t even know if she wanted to play basketball.”

Before she transferred to UMass, the Gibsonia, Pennsylvania, native joined the Nittany Lions at Penn State after a lights-out high school career. She was a top-70 national recruit, and ESPN ranked her No. 15 at her position; she set her high school’s record with 2,488 career points. Breen was a baller, but during her time at Penn State, she didn’t see the floor very often. She averaged 6.5 minutes her freshman year, and finished the season with just 32 points total. She gave it another try as a sophomore, but it didn’t take her very long to decide that this wasn’t the program for her; she left just four games into her second season with the Lions.

“I’m gonna be honest, I just really wasn’t enjoying the game at all. It was taking a negative toll on me both mentally and physically,” Breen said on her decision to leave Penn State. “So at that point, I just wanted to focus on myself and whatever that may have been and that’s why for a while I thought it was not playing basketball.”

Though she still wasn’t positive about whether she’d keep playing or not, Breen put her name in the transfer portal. When Verdi saw Breen’s name flash across his screen, well – he knew that he needed her at UMass.

“When she was in the portal and I saw her name and I’m like, we got to get on this kid. I remember going through her high school film like oh my god, this kid is truly talented,” Verdi said. “She didn’t want to come here for a visit, she wanted to stay in her home. Her dad said no, we’re gonna go...She knew within two hours that ‘I’m coming here,’ but she didn’t tell me that,” he added with a grin.

Verdi wasn’t sure what he was getting with Breen, who still wasn’t sure whether or not she’d continue to play basketball. But one thing he was sure of – she was an incredible player, and while they waited for her eligibility to kick in, she was out-playing everyone on his team as a member of the practice squad.

“She was a pain in the butt because she was on our scout team, and we’re in practice and she’s kicking everybody’s butt. I’m trying to get our team to gain confidence going into games and we’re playing against her and she’s kicking everyone’s butt,” Verdi said. “But I knew what the end result was going to be.”

Sam’s first game was just four days before Christmas, a roadie against Iona College. In 24 minutes, she posted eight points and nine boards in a 65-51 win. The following game, she scored a cool 28 points and grabbed 11 balls off the glass against Central Connecticut State.

“I knew from that point forward we were going to be special,” Verdi said.

And special they were. Surrounded by players like point guard Destiney Philoxy and sharp-shooter Sydney Taylor, Breen and her team went to work shaping the Minutewomen into a contender, a team worthy of respect. Breen was at the center of that; in her first season with the Minutewomen, she made the A-10 All-Conference Second Team and led the team in scoring and rebounding per game, and the accolades kept rolling in the next year: A-10 All-Conference First Team, WNIT Charlotte All-Region Team, A-10 All-Championship team, and a trip to the A-10 title game with a shot at the NCAA tournament on the line.

They didn’t win a conference championship that year. Breen made sure they won it when they got a second chance this season. Breen was ecstatic in the postgame celebration, screaming and enjoying the moment with the rest of her team. But Breen’s been happy all year at UMass, something she wasn’t sure she’d find again.

“I took some time off, kind of reset and thought about it and realized that in the right spot, I could enjoy the game again. And that’s exactly what I did,” Breen said. “I’m lucky, because not everyone gets that second chance. Some people go in the transfer portal and their second school they still don’t thoroughly enjoy. But lucky for me, Coach Verdi, the whole staff, the team, everything has just been incredible. I’m just thankful every day that I made that decision.”

Her teammates have seen Breen grow into the player that she is today, but they’ve seen more than just her on-court play flourish. Breen describes herself as ‘not the most social person,’ but she’s grown closer to players like Philoxy during her time with the Minutewomen.

“Sam has changed in ways y’all don’t know about. For example, she wants to pass the ball more. She wants to be able to do all three, shoot, rebound and pass. She wants to become more unstoppable,” Philoxy said. “Having another teammate that wants to grow just like you do is just nothing more you can ask for. But her confidence has gotten a lot all around the court, and I’m just simply proud of her.”

Remarkably, Breen still has one more full season left with the Minutewomen, so she’s not leaving Amherst any time soon. When she does (finally) graduate, the UMass faithful will remember her as one of the most talented players to ever grace the floor of the Mullins Center. But Breen will look back at UMass as the place where she found a family and rediscovered the love of the game. That feeling she rediscovered with the Minutewomen is more valuable to her than any championship trophy could be.

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