UMass women’s basketball finding confidence in latter parts of non-conference slate

  • UMass senior Vashnie Perry (23) dribbles past Hartford’s Charlette Leurs during the Minutewomen’s win over the Hawks on Nov. 17 at the Mullins Center.photo by J. Anthony Roberts J. Anthony Roberts

Staff Writer
Published: 12/13/2019 9:14:39 PM
Modified: 12/13/2019 9:14:26 PM

AMHERST — It was easy to overreact after UMass’ first game.

The Minutewomen entered the season with hope and optimism that the program was turning a corner. Then Merrimack outcompeted UMass for 40 minutes on opening night for a 79-64 win that put a damper on those thoughts.

But at the time, fourth-year coach Tory Verdi said he knew it would be a learning experience for his team. That’s exactly what is has been for UMass, which enters Sunday’s 2 p.m. home game against Siena riding a four-game winning streak and having won seven of its last eight games.

Whether it was a wake-up call or just a tough lesson, the 7-3 Minutewomen have responded exactly as their coach had hoped in the aftermath of the shocking defeat.

“No coach wants to lose, but I was happy after the fact because I thought it would teach us a lesson,” Verdi said. “For whatever reason we did not play well against Merrimack, but from that point on I’ve felt like we’ve out-toughed and we’ve outworked all of our opponents. We’ve played extremely hard, and our effort has been there and we’ve been consistent and we’ve learned from that experience and we’ve grown.”

UMass has locked down on defense to help spark its recent run of success. In the last eight games, the Minutewomen have held opponents to 33.7 percent shooting and 57.6 points per game. Verdi described the effort as “scrappy” and said the performances have helped drive the offense and set the tone in games.

A reason for the team’s defensive success is the connection that has been built between the players this offseason. Senior Vashnie Perry said there is a different level of camaraderie on the court that has helped UMass get off to its best start since 2006-07.

“The difference I’ve been feeling these past few weeks is the confidence, the heart and the hustle, and the trust in each other,” Perry said. “We trust each other more and more in each game, and that starts off in practice. That trust is unbreakable at this point.”

Leading the defensive effort are a pair of freshmen, forwards Maeve Donnelly and Angelique Ngalakulondi. The two have been an anchor inside for the Minutewomen and become ferocious rim protectors. Donnelly, especially, has made a name for herself a shot blocker, ranking second nationally with 34 rejections through 10 games.

Only five teams in the Atlantic 10 have as many blocks as the freshman and when you include Ngalakulondi’s 14 stuffs, the freshmen have a total that would rank 15th nationally.

“I’m very proud of them, not just as freshmen but as players in general,” Perry said. “They’ve learned so much and they don’t understand the positions they’re in, they’re things we want juniors and seniors to be doing, and they’re doing them as freshmen. They make strides every single day and it’s very evident in every game.”

On the other end of the floor, it’s the Minutewomen’s two seniors who have helped energize the offensive flow. Hailey Leidel has rediscovered her scoring touch and leads the team with 17.4 points per game while shooting almost 45 percent from the floor and nearly 46 percent from behind the arc.

Those are career-best stats for the senior guard, who has been the Minutewomen’s leading scorer each of her first three years in Amherst. She said the reason for her turnaround is all mental and that she hasn’t let her perfectionist tendencies affect her as much as they did last season because she knows the pressure isn’t on her to score as much.

“Knowing we have more talent from every position, I just feel like I get to go out and play basketball,” Leidel said. “I don’t feel like I have to go out and score. I honestly believe if I don’t score during a game, we could still pull out a win and I don’t think I would have ever been able to say that the last three years.”

Perry is also on pace to have a career year as she has evolved into the glue player for the Minutewomen. Leidel said Perry has successfully stepped into whatever role UMass needs from her that night whether it be a scorer, distributor or just energetic presence on the court.

Most importantly, though, Perry has been a leader for an inexperienced team that has had to mature as the season has progressed.

“Vash is our catalyst, she makes us go,” Verdi said. “She does a great job of getting us into offense, she does a great job at getting everyone the ball and making things happen. We need her at her best every single day and we need her to be consistent, and she’s shown that for us.”

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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