A-10 Media Day: UMass basketball teams primed for new season

  • UMass women’s basketball players Destiney Philoxy, Sydney Taylor and Sam Breen will help lead a Minutewomen team trying to build off last season’s success. BRIAN MCWALTERS/ATLANTIC 10 CONFERENCE

Staff Writer
Published: 10/29/2021 5:24:23 PM

One of the best women’s basketball seasons in UMass history might be just a preview. For the first time since 1998, the Minutewomen reached the postseason with a WNIT berth and played for the Atlantic 10 championship. They didn’t lose any of the seven players that carried them to that point and added two transfers and a strong crop of freshmen.

“It think last year was a good building block of what we’re capable of. A lot of people underestimated us last year,” UMass graduate student forward Sam Breen said. “We’re only going to get better from here on out.”

Every member of the ‘Savage Seven’ that won three games in three days to reach the Atlantic 10 final, including Breen and point guard Destiney Philoxy, first-team all-conference performers last season. Breen was named to the preseason All-Atlantic 10 squad, while Philoxy landed on the second team and was honored on the preseason Atlantic 10 defensive team.

Sydney Taylor averaged 15.6 points per game (fifth in the conference) and made 59 3s, which led the league. Freshmen Ber’Nyah Mayo and Makennah White carved out meaningful roles, and early high school graduate Stefanie Kulesza found her footing at the collegiate level. Angelique Ngalakulondi became a force down low over the course of thee postseason.

“The seven of us was a good core group and we were lucky to have everyone return,” Breen said. “I think the seven of us were a good foundation and we built on that really well.”

Despite featuring many of the same faces, the Minutewomen entered the season with the motto ‘be different.’ Players initially asked UMass coach Tory Verdi, who recently agreed to an extension through the 2025-26 season, what that meant. He said that they didn’t win a championship last year, why would they want to just be the same?

“Last year was the start of something and we’re going to continue to do something special,” Verdi said. “I look at it as a stepping stone.”

PRESEASON POLLS – The Minutewomen were predicted to finish sixth in the A-10 preseason poll, while the UMass men’s basketball team was slotted ninth.

UMass finished fifth last season in the men’s standings and seventh on the women’s side.

“That’s fine that we’re picked sixth, preseason is more for media and fans. Where I look at it is where you finish,” Verdi said. “The way I look at it is many coaches not respecting what we’re doing at the University of Massachusetts. There’s a reason why we play conference games.”

It’s hard to know what to make of the men’s basketball team. On the one hand they return seven players from last year’s squad, but they also lost their two leading scorers and brought in five transfers.

“It’s important for us to not pay attention to that stuff,” UMass junior point guard Noah Fernandes said. “At the end of the season we’ll see who got the respect.”

BIG TIME – Five UMass women’s players stand six feet or taller, led by 6-foot-4 freshman Natousha Harden. Three are 5-foot-11, as well, giving the Minutewomen size and length that they haven’t possessed recently.

“The length bothers opponents,” Verdi said. “It gives us the opportunity to get deflections and steals and push in transition to get some easy baskets.

TWO HEADS BETTER THAN ONE – UMass guard Rich Kelly, a Boston College transfer, noticed both Baylor and Gonzaga running lineups with multiple point guards watching last season’s national championship game. He thought that would be a fun offense to be a part of and considered his backcourt mate when deciding on the school to finish his college career at. Fernandes was an ideal fit.

“This is the first time in my career I’ve shared the back court with another true point guard. It makes my job a lot easier. Having an open perspective from learning from another leader, another facilitator has been enjoyable for me,” Kelly said. “It’s looking pretty good right now.”

SEASON OF GIVING – Philoxy set career highs in points (11.5), assists (6.5) and rebounds (3.8) per game last season. She ranked fifth in the nation in assists per game. The Queens native is aiming even higher this season.

“I love passing the ball. My goal this year is to have more assists than I did last year. My career high was 10, let’s go for 15. Let’s go for more than that. I want to be No. 1 in the NCAA in assists per game,” Philoxy said. “But I have to understand when to pass the ball and when not to, when to score. I want to do it all again. Career high in points, assists, rebounds. If I can do it all I’m going to.”

FRONT LINE WORKERS – After the UMass men’s team’s two centers Tre Mitchell (transferred to Texas) and Mark Gasperini (graduation) departed following last season, the Minutemen will use their bigs in rotation and approach the post by committee.

Transfers Trent Buttrick (Penn State) and Michael Steadman (Montana) might share the floor together due to their abilities to shoot as well as play down low, and Central Connecticut transfer Greg Jones can provide energy and experience. All three could also function as a lone big in smaller lineups.

“In our offense we do a lot of pick and roll actions, with the three big guys we’ve got, they love setting screens because they know it’s going to get them open shots,” Fernandes said.

Kyle Grabowski can be reached at kgrabowski@gazettenet.com. Follow him on Twitter @kylegrbwsk.
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