Tory Verdi basking in the glow of UMass’s Atlantic 10 title

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

Staff Writer 
Published: 3/12/2022 12:12:57 AM

When Tory Verdi was hired to lead a rebuild of the UMass women’s basketball team, everyone around him thought he was crazy. Why would he take a job at a UMass program that hadn’t had a winning season in a decade?

“When I took this job, people looked at me and they were like, ‘you're crazy… you're going somewhere where there's no tradition, there's no history,’” Verdi said. “I knew in my mind – to me it wasn't a step down to me … it's a sleeping giant. When I put my mind to something I know that I'm going to outwork (everyone), and I'm going to make sure I do everything possible to see it through.”

Nobody is doubting the Minutewomen anymore. Fresh off a record-breaking 23-6 season and the team’s first Atlantic 10 Tournament championship in program history, Verdi may still be a little bit crazy, but it’s the kind of crazy you want to believe in. It takes a special kind of motivation, near obsession, to build a program from the ground floor up the way Verdi and his staff has, and Verdi has that determination in spades. 

This is a group that has it all – the A-10 Player of the Year, Sam Breen, two other stars in Sydney Taylor and Destiney Philoxy who made second team All-Conference, and a full roster full of players who can step up whenever called upon to make a difference on the floor.

But this team isn’t just a one-hit wonder. The title win and trip to the NCAA tournament isn’t the culmination of six years of hard work – it’s just the beginning of something much more. 

“As far as recruiting goes and having this happen, let's just say that recruiting has picked up, and there's a lot of excited student-athletes out there that want to be a part of the message that the University of Massachusetts,” Verdi said.

The Minutewomen will find out their fate on Selection Sunday at 8 p.m., and then it will be back to business as usual. But consider this a turning point in the history of UMass basketball – it’s not a season that will be forgotten any time soon. 

SOAKING IT ALL IN 

After winning their title on Sunday, the Minutewomen had a whole week off with no games. Verdi gave his squad the two days off, and the team indulged in some “liquid libations” to celebrate the win. Verdi also took some time to bask in the glory of the win in his own way. 

“I’m taking it all in. I'd be lying to you right now if I said that yesterday I took some time in my office, where the trophy is on my coffee table, and put my feet up. I stared at that trophy for at least an hour and I was talking to it, and I was telling it how beautiful she was,” Verdi said with a wry grin. 

FULL STRENGTH 

The extra time off was just what the doctor ordered for one particular member of the team. Sitting in the dentist’s office on Monday morning, Verdi noticed that his phone kept ringing with texts and missed calls. When he checked his phone, he realized they were all from freshman Stefanie Kulesza, who had been sidelined since early February with a hand injury. 

“I get in my car and I listen to the message and it’s Stef, and she's like ‘Call me, call me, call me.’ So I called her and she's like ‘Guess who got cleared to play?’ Now I knew it was her,” Verdi said as an aside while recounting the story. “I said (Aisha Dabo)? She said ‘No!’ I said (Natousha Harden)?” ‘No!’ I said you? And she said ‘Yeah!’ I'm super excited for her. She's gonna prepare herself to do whatever she can to help our team down the stretch.”

WALL OF FAME 

As to be expected, Verdi’s phone blew up when his team won the title last week. He had some people congratulating him that left him wondering how they even got his number, but there were a number of former colleagues and A-list coaches who also sent him messages congratulating him. Kim Barnes Arico, head coach at the University of Michigan, Chris Dailey, associate coach over at UConn, and Bonnie Henrickson, lead coach at the University of California Santa Barbara were a few that stood out to Verdi, as well as Bernadette Maddux and Darrice Griffin, who worked as the senior associate director of athletics at UMass from 2015-2017. 

“You guys may not know that name, but Bernadette worked on the men's side for Rick Pitino, she was the first female to do it, and then I worked with her at the Connecticut Sun…. for her to reach out, it's just monumental,” Verdi said. “Darrice was a big reason why I’m here, and she led the charge in my recruitment. For her to reach out, and other ADs in the A-10, just to be validated was truly special.”


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