UMass basketball programs take large leap in 2019-20

  • Sam Breen, top, of UMass, snags a loose ball from Kyla Whitehead, of Dayton, that occurred after a rebound Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2020 at the Mullins Center. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Vashnie Perry, right, of UMass, moves the ball against Kyla Whitehead, of Dayton, Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2020 at the Mullins Center. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • UMass Head Coach Tony Verdi shouts instructions to his team during their game against Dayton, Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2020 at the Mullins Center. Destiney Philoxy moves the ball. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Bre Hampton-Bey, of UMass, draws a foul from Araion Bradshaw, of Dayton, Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2020 at the Mullins Center. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Destiney Philoxy, right, of UMass, drives past Dayton defenders Julia Chandler, left, and Jayla Scaife, Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2020 at the Mullins Center. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Maeve Donnelly, center, of UMass, reaches for a rebound against Julia Chandler, of Dayton, Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2020 at the Mullins Center. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Tre Mitchell, top, right, of UMass, shoots against Mike'l Simms, of VCU, Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020 at the Mullins Center. Samba Diallo looks on. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Carl Pierre, right, of UMass, moves the ball against De'Riante Jenkins, of VCU, Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020 at the Mullins Center. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Sean East II, right, of UMass, moves the ball against Jimmy Clark III, of VCU, Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020 at the Mullins Center. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Preston Santos, left, of UMass, tries to take a rebound from Marcus Santos-Silva, of VCU, Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020 at the Mullins Center. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Carl Pierre, left, of UMass, moves the ball against VCU defenders Mike'l Simms, center, and De'Riante Jenkins, Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020 at the Mullins Center. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 3/23/2020 2:53:31 PM

AMHERST — Before the academic year began, UMass started a marketing campaign for its athletics department.

The school used the hashtag #TheFlagshipIs and each team then chose a different word to complete the phrase. Few programs were as spot on with their selections as the UMass basketball teams.

The women used the word “rising,” and that might have been an understatement in Tory Verdi’s fourth year at the helm. The men had the word “relentless,” which is an apt way to describe the surge the Minutemen had over the final six weeks of the season.

For the Minutewomen, Verdi’s fourth season was once again progress over the previous three years as the program reached heights it hadn’t accomplished since the mid-1990s. UMass won 20 games for only the second time in program history and also won a school-record 11 straight games from late November through the middle of January. UMass finished in fifth place in the Atlantic 10, earning itself a home game in the conference tournament for the first time since 1998.

“Every year Tory has had progress and more success than the year prior, and that’s a testament to a really good plan, a really good execution, a great culture,” athletics director Ryan Bamford said last week. “There is absolutely without a doubt a lot of momentum in women’s basketball and we have a chance to compete for league championships and NCAA Tournament appearances.”

As the season wound down and the Minutewomen kept accomplishing history, Verdi said he wouldn’t be able to accurately reflect on the season until after it was over. He was not made available to comment amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but after UMass lost to Saint Louis in the Atlantic 10 quarterfinals on March 6, he was able to compare the progress of the program.

He recalled the challenges of his first year when UMass was starting soccer players and ended its season with a 40-point loss to the Billikens in the first round of the A10 Tournament. But he also said he always knew he needed to build a program that could continually compete for championships and made sure to select the right players in order to see that year-to-year improvement lead to something in the future. Now, he said, is the start of that future for the Minutewomen.

“We don’t want it to be a quick hit, where we have success then be back at the bottom again,” Verdi said. “We wanted to sustain winning at the University of Massachusetts, so we had to bring in the right character kids. We had to bring in players that want to be invested and want to do something special and do things that have never been done before. … This is just the beginning for us. We’re excited about those who are returning, we’re excited about those who are coming in and I’m not going to stop working. Our goals when I took over this program was to win an A10 Championship, and slowly we’re getting there.”

While Verdi was slowly building his program, across the hall in the Champions Center, Matt McCall saw a meteoric rise in the men’s program. A exceptionally strong freshmen class helped UMass finish 14-17, but more importantly 8-10 within the Atlantic 10, the Minutemen’s best mark in league play in five years. The record was even more special given where the team sat on Jan. 25.

On that date, the Minutemen were 1-5 in the conference and had won just two games overall since right before Thanksgiving. UMass was showing potential with some late leads, but the young core had squandered several games late. On Jan. 25, UMass controlled the game for all 40 minutes and eased to a win over Duquesne, breathing a new life into the Minutemen and the optimism around the program moving forward.

“I’m extremely proud of them,” Bamford said. “We went 8-10 in the league, we finished eighth – and by no means do we want to finish 8-10 moving forward – but we made some really good strides this year. Considering where we were in the middle of January, it’s even more impressive than people realize. That’s a real credit to that group sticking together, believing in each other and keeping their head down and their chin up and grinding it out together.”

The success came a year after a difficult offseason for the Minutemen. Six players left via transfer and McCall restructured his entire coaching staff by hiring three new assistants. Bamford said those changes made as much of an impact on the program as the players they brought in because it injected a new energy into the program and created the right culture and attitude to create success.

“We needed to re-assemble some things, we needed to look at every asset of the program,” Bamford said. “I really believe in not only the young men in our program and the commitment they are making, but the men leading our program under Matt in our coaches and the way that we’ve recruited and the attitude that we had. There’s no excuses, and they don’t make any, and they are not satisfied with being mediocre and they are pushing our program to the next level as well.”

Josh Walfish can be reached at jwalfish@gazettenet.com. Follow him on Twitter @JoshWalfishDHG. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage.

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