Sydney Taylor goes off, UMass women beat VCU in return from 3-week break

Staff Writer
Published: 1/12/2022 9:41:11 PM
Modified: 1/12/2022 9:40:21 PM

It was hard to know what to expect coming into UMass’ conference opener against VCU on Wednesday evening. After winning their last game against Hartford on Dec. 22, the Minutewomen went home for a winter break that was longer than they expected due to a COVID-19 outbreak.

A majority of the team, including head coach Tory Verdi, were out of commission for three weeks, and the team wasn’t able to come together for a full two-hour practice until the day before their Atlantic 10 Conference opener against VCU. 

Coming back to this gym also brought back some painful memories for UMass – last year, the Rams bested the Minutewomen in the A-10 Tournament championship game, a loss that was tough to swallow for a team that knew it was better than the performance they left on the court. 

But despite the odds being stacked against them, this is a resilient group, and that attitude carried over in their first game action of 2022. UMass walked away with a 72-60 win Wednesday in Richmond, Va. to get their first win in conference play, thanks to a strong second-half effort across their entire team.  

It was an especially meaningful win for Verdi, who had to take a minute to compose himself and wipe tears from his eyes as he sat down for the post-game press conference. 

“I'm emotional because it's been a tough three weeks. It's been a really tough three weeks. Nobody knows how tough it was unless you're really in it," Verdi said. “Our players knew, (our) coaches knew. When you go through something like that, the adversity that you face, for them to come out and respond and play the way they did today shows you their character and who they are as players. I'm just tremendously proud of them.”

Sydney Taylor was a difference-maker for the Minutewomen, putting up 32 points after struggling in the opening quarter. A whopping 22 of those points came in the second and third quarters alone; Taylor’s 32 point performance obliterated her previous season-high 26-point performance in a win against Providence.

Ber’Nyah Mayo had another strong performance, scoring all 11 of her points in the first half to keep UMass within striking distance, while Destiney Philoxy finished with 13 points and six assists, nine of those points coming in the final frame. 

Sam Breen, one of the team's most consistent offensive threats, was limited to just seven points and guarded heavily by VCU’s Madison Hattix-Covington. That said, Breen still managed to be an impact player in the game, grabbing a team-leading nine boards. 

Both Breen and Philoxy were glad to get the win and exorcise some of last year’s ghosts.

“The thing I said to them in the huddle was (that) last time we were on this court, that wasn't us and let's do what we do best,” said Philoxy. “Let's not play their basketball, let's play our own basketball. When I came to the gym, I was little nervous at first because I lost when I was here… we had a chance to make something big [the NCAA Tournament] but we didn't. So I was a little nervous, and then the game started I just shook it off.” 

“It felt great to get the win, and just to be on the court again,” Taylor added. “Like Destiney said, the gym (and) the locker room brought back a lot of emotion from last year as soon as I walked in… that’s immediately what I thought, but I knew we could beat them.”

The first quarter was all VCU, and specifically all Taya Robinson, who put up 10 points in the first period alone as the Rams kept UMass at bay with a 15-14 lead. The Minutewomen struggled with their shooting percentage, going just 5-for-12 from the field and knocking down two of their six three-point attempts. Despite that, they managed to stay within striking distance of VCU early. 

That changed at the beginning of the second frame, when the Rams went on an 8-0 run early, and forced UMass to take a timeout after they pushed that to a 31-22 lead. From that point on, the Minutewomen were able to slowly but surely chip away at the Rams’ lead, going into halftime down just five points with a 40-35 score. 

The third quarter was some of the best basketball that UMass played all game, as they came out with a 10-0 run out the gate to take a 45-40 lead. From there, the Minutewomen didn’t give the lead back for the remainder of the contest, building all the way up to a 13-point advantage midway through the final quarter. That was also thanks to their improved defensive play, including holding Robinson to just one point in the second half after she knocked down 17 in the first. 

“I told our players that she's a good player, but you can't be scared to defend her. Yeah, she's a good player, and then I looked at all of them and I said, ‘but you guys are too. You're just as good,’” Verdi said emphatically. 

VCU wasn’t going to go quietly, and the hosts pulled off a couple of tough double-team defensive plays that looked like they rattled UMass, getting back to within seven points and causing a frustrated Verdi to call a timeout with two minutes left in the fourth. But after that break, the Minutewomen were back to their typical selves; Taylor sunk another triple on the first possession from the timeout and it was all UMass for the rest of the contest.

UMass improved to 13-2 on the season and 1-0 in the A 10. Next up is another road game in Virginia on Saturday as the Minutewomen play at Richmond.

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