UMass women’s basketball team giving up size to Notre Dame in NCAA Tournament matchup

Staff Writer
Published: 3/18/2022 6:12:49 PM
Modified: 3/18/2022 6:12:10 PM

NORMAN, Okla. — When asked what the UMass women’s basketball team would have to deal with in its first NCAA tournament game against No. 5 Notre Dame, senior point guard Destiney Philoxy summed it up in one word – “Size.”

It goes beyond that, of course. The Fighting Irish are stacked with talent, headed by second-year coach Niele Ivey, who’s restoring the program to its former glory after its 24-year postseason streak came to a halt in 2021. She’s done just that this season – predicted to finish No. 6 in the ACC, Notre Dame picked up the No. 3 seed, and finished the regular season ranked No. 21 nationally after starting the year unranked. As a No. 5 seed facing off against a No. 12 seed that has significantly less program history, it would be easy for the Irish to overlook the Minutewomen. But Ivey knows better than that.

“They’re a super well-coached team. Watching them, (they’re) very disciplined, hard-nosed, led the A-10 in scoring, (have) many multiple offensive weapons on that team. So I’m expecting a battle. I have a lot of respect for UMass and their program and where they’re trending,” Ivey said. “We had an opportunity to play Fordham, so we know how tough the A-10 is.”

Saturday night’s game (7:30 p.m. ET on ESPN2) is going to be a tough game for both teams. Per HerHoopStats, UMass has a 47.7 percent winning probability against Notre Dame at a neutral site – this is a very winnable game for the Minutewomen, despite it being a No. 12 vs. No. 5 matchup. There have already been a number of upsets in the NCAA tournament, including No. 12 FGCU knocking off No. 5 Virginia Tech.

Ask UMass coach Tory Verdi what Notre Dame does well, and the list goes on for miles. They’re tall, they’re long, they’re aggressive, their zone defense is locked down, they’re great on the boards, they’re fast in transition, and they have a pair of freshmen that could give UMass fits. Sonia Citron was named the ACC’s Rookie of the Year, and point guard Olivia Miles is the catalyst of this Notre Dame team. Containing Miles in particular will be a critical part of UMass’ strategy.

“She makes them go. We’ve got to do a great job of really containing her and we can’t allow her to be confident on the floor and just do the things that she wants to do,” Verdi said. “Our players understand what she’s capable of doing, but we can’t allow her the freedom to go out there and operate offensively, because they’re really good when she starts attacking downhill, attacking the basket, not only creating for herself but creating for everyone else. So we plan on not allowing her to be comfortable here.”

Though UMass and Notre Dame didn’t meet in the regular season, and haven’t ever met in the Big Dance, the Minutewomen have played a couple of teams that feel familiar to this Irish squad. UMass dealt with Dayton’s height in the A-10 championship game, though Notre Dame is even longer than the Flyers were. The Minutewomen have also played against Rhode Island’s zone defense, something they expect the Irish to deploy for the majority of Saturday’s game. UMass struggled with that against the Rams, dropping both of their games to their A-10 rival and struggling to run their offense the way they wanted to. They’ve since had time to rework their strategy.

“I think that we’ve had the opportunity to retool and rethink some things offensively. So I’m kind of excited to see those things on the court (Saturday) night,” Verdi said. “But regardless of it, we’re in a better position. We’re healthier, and I know that offensively we will not be stagnant. We will be aggressive and we will do a great job of moving their their defense from side to side and breaking it down and we will have high percentage shots.”

That play will likely revolve around A-10 Player of the Year Sam Breen, who has been UMass’ go-to player all season long. Despite going into the A-10 tournament as the No. 3 seed, Breen took over the Chase Fieldhouse in both the semifinal and championship game, scoring 18 points in the first quarter alone in the semis and posting 19 points in the championship game. When Breen is on, it makes other teams wary of her and opens the floor up, giving teammates like Philoxy, Sydney Taylor, Ber’Nyah Mayo, and Angelique Ngalakulondi just enough extra space to show off their skills too.

“She can score it will, score at all three levels. You could tell that she is a leader. She plays with fire, passion, and she really gets their team going,” Ivey said. “We understand that she’s the glue. She gets them going, but she also has an incredible supporting cast. We have a job ahead of us, you know trying to contain her and to limit them from scoring.”

Saturday’s game also showcases what a small world basketball can be – Coquese Washington, now an associate coach with Notre Dame, was the head coach of Penn State’s women’s basketball team from 2007-19. Before she came to UMass, Breen played under Washington during her stint with the Lions, before deciding the school wasn’t a good fit and joining the Minutewomen.

“I haven’t had too much of a relationship with her since I left, but no hard feelings or anything, really,” Breen said. “I’m sure once we see each other, we’re gonna say hi or whatever. But I’m a fifth-year now, so it’s been kind of a while since I’ve seen’s cool to be on the opposing side.”

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