Let’s go dancing! UMass beats Dayton for A-10 women’s basketball title, secures 1st NCAA berth since 1998

  • The UMass women’s basketball team celebrates winning the program’s first-ever Atlantic 10 Conference title via a 62-56 win over Dayton on Sunday in Wilmington, Del. The Minutewomen will play in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1998. CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS

  • UMass players (left to right) Sydney Taylor, Angelique Ngalakulondi and Destiney Philoxy celebrate after beating Dayton to win the Atlantic 10 championship on Sunday in WIlmington, Del. PHOTO BY GREG FIUME/ATLANTIC 10

  • UMass players celebrate after beating Dayton to win the Atlantic 10 championship on Sunday in WIlmington, Del. PHOTO BY GREG FIUME/ATLANTIC 10

  • UMass players celebrate after beating Dayton to win the Atlantic 10 championship on Sunday in WIlmington, Del. PHOTO BY GREG FIUME/ATLANTIC 10

  • 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.

  • Massachusetts head coach Troy Verdi, center right, huddles with his team during the first half of an NCAA college basketball championship game against Dayton in the A10 Conference Tournament, Sunday, March 6, 2022, in Wilmington, Del. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola) Chris Szagola

  • Massachusetts' Sam Breen, right, battles with Dayton's Kyla Whitehead, center, for the ball during the first half of an NCAA college basketball championship game in the A10 Conference Tournament, Sunday, March 6, 2022, in Wilmington, Del. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola) Chris Szagola

  • Massachusetts' Ber'Nyah Mayo, left, drives to the basket against Dayton's Erin Whalen during the first half of an NCAA college basketball championship game in the A10 Conference Tournament, Sunday, March 6, 2022, in Wilmington, Del. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola) Chris Szagola

Staff Writer 
Published: 3/6/2022 4:32:50 PM

It was a familiar scene for the UMass women’s basketball team. 

Last year, they made it all the way to the Atlantic 10 Conference championship despite a mountain of odds stacked against them. This year, they found their way back, riding a 23-win regular season and collecting a bucket of accolades along the way. The expectation was the same: to win the program’s first A-10 title. 

This year, despite setbacks and consistency issues and injuries and sickness, the Minutewomen put together a complete game that Dayton could not keep up with. UMass secured its first-ever conference championship with a 62-56 win Sunday over the top-seeded Flyers at Chase Arena in Wilmington, Del., punching their ticket to the NCAA Division 1 Tournament.

The trip to the big dance marks the first time UMass will play in the tourney since 1998. The Minutewomen won’t find out the opponent or location of their opening-round game until the selection show on March 13 at 8 p.m.

Hometown hero Ber’Nyah Mayo gave the third-seeded Minutewomen the breathing room they needed late. Fouled twice in the last 34 seconds of the contest, Mayo splashed all four of her free throws to give the Minutewomen an eight-point lead and the eventual ‘W’ in front of her home crowd. 

“(It’s a) super amazing feeling. They give me the world every day, they never told me no. I feel like this is for them,” Mayo said on winning in front of her family and friends. “I'm just glad they can be proud of me regardless, win or lose. They always tell me to just give my best, so this is honestly for them.”

The Minutewomen made a statement in the first quarter, just as they did in their quarterfinal against No. 7 St. Joseph’s on Saturday. Sam Breen opened the scoring for the Minutewomen with a triple, and the floodgates opened from there. UMass held the Flyers to just four points in the opening 5:27, racing out to a 13-4 lead that forced a Dayton timeout.

Destiney Philoxy got into foul trouble early. The guard picked up her third foul of the game on a dicey block call that sent her to the bench, leaving a huge hole on the floor with 6:37 left in the half. 

“Destiney getting in foul trouble doesn't happen too, too often. And we knew she was just trying to draw charges, doing her thing. (With) Lex (Brooks) coming off the bench, she was ready,” Breen said. “We have other people who can find open players. Her coming in and being ready really helped.”

Despite missing Philoxy, the Minutewomen got contributions from all over the floor. Breen was her usual self, carrying over her dominant performance from Saturday’s win into Sunday’s contest; she had 17 points by halftime, including a perfect 3-for-3 beyond the arc. Angelique Ngalakulondi was strong in the post, quietly putting up nine points and grabbing three boards. Sydney Taylor posted seven points, finding other places to score on the floor besides the three-point line. 

UMass held its collective breath when Breen dove for a loose ball and grabbed her elbow, but she shook it off quickly, scoring a layup on the next possession. 

It looked like Dayton might pull even late in the frame, going on a short 4-0 spurt to pull within two and forcing Verdi to call a timeout with the score at 30-28. But the Minutewomen didn’t give them an inch; Taylor sank a free throw, Breen hit a jumper, and Ngalakulondi finished off the half with a giant layup and-one play with 26 seconds to go. UMass went into the half up 37-28. 

The third quarter was all UMass, specifically all Makennah White and Wilmington native Ber’Nyah Mayo, who picked up right where Breen and Ngalakulondi left off in the first half. It looked like Dayton might charge back early; Jenna Giacone hit her first 3 of the night to make it 39-31, but it was the only triple that the Flyers hit in the third. The play of bigs White and Ngalakulondi was one of the major difference makers for UMass.

“We didn't want to get killed on the boards, so we needed to keep our post players on our post. We did a great job of hedging, (and) contained the dribble penetration,” UMass head coach Tory Verdi said. “They tried to take out our hedge, so we had to tell our post players that they had to step above that and not get screened. I thought that Angelique (Ngalakulondi) and Makennah White did a great job, and Sam Breen did a great job. We had to match their physicality, there's no question about that.”

Breen opened the third period with a jumper, but nine of the next 13 UMass points came from White and Mayo. Taylor contributed to the 15-point third quarter, knocking down her first triple of the night to make it 45-33 UMass. White finished the scoring with a free throw that gave UMass a 15-point lead, their biggest gap of the game. The Minutewomen finished the third up 52-39 with all the momentum. 

The fourth was a nail-biter. Just 10 minutes away from history, UMass did its best to fend off the desperate Flyers. Dayton went on a quick 6-2 run to open the frame and cut UMass’ lead to eight points. White hit a turnaround jumper to make it 54-44, and White and Mayo sank back-to-back layups to regain that 10-point cushion with 3:56 remaining.

Down 12, Kyla Whitehead scored a field goal for Dayton and the Flyers capitalized on a turnover, kicking the ball out to Makira Cook for a triple. After a tense couple of minutes with no scoring, Erin Whalen hit a three again, the score now 58-54 with just 1:05 left.

But Mayo handled her business at the charity stripe in the final minute, and UMass earned a return trip to the NCAA Tournament some 24 years in the making.

It’s a moment that Verdi said he’s been dreaming about for years, and he choked up when reflecting on that afterward.

“God, I hoped for this day, you have no idea,” Verdi said. “I hoped, I prepped, I dreamt of this day for so many years. And now that it's here – it's amazing to me. It's amazing to me… but we got here because of the people that are in our program, and it's just not our players. It's my support staff. Everyone is in. Everyone was invested each and every single day. As far as now being here, it's surreal.”


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