Women’s basketball notebook: UMass happy to be back on the court

  • Sydney Taylor and the UMass women’s basketball team are back on the floor after a three-week COVID-19 pause. The Minutewomen beat VCU on Wednesday and will play at Richmond on Saturday. COURTESY JAY CRAIN

Staff Writer
Published: 1/14/2022 7:07:16 PM
Modified: 1/14/2022 7:06:52 PM

Nobody expected the start of the UMass women’s basketball team’s conference schedule to look quite like this.

But then, it’s fair to say that a lot of unexpected things can happen when you’re living in a world where the COVID-19 pandemic is still causing havoc. UMass was supposed to start Atlantic 10 play on the road against Rhode Island, but then that was postponed … and then so was its game against La Salle … and then the majority of the team tested positive with COVID-19 and were knocked out for three weeks to recover.

No basketball, no video, nothing.

Not quite the start they wanted for 2022.

But it’s a team that has shown to be a resilient bunch time and time again. The Minutewomen went into their matchup against VCU on Wednesday with a grand total of two hours of practice since their last game on Dec. 18, and came up with a 72-60 come-from-behind victory in Richmond, Va. The team will stay on the road for a Saturday game at Richmond (4 p.m., ESPN-Plus).

“That’s the thing about this group. They’re special,” UMass head coach Tory Verdi said after the win. “They understand that that’s coaching, I’m gonna coach them hard. You know, I’m going to tell them the truth. I’m very transparent, very emotional, as I’m sure you guys could tell. But, these guys want to win, and we’re going to give them everything that we can from a coaching perspective to put them in a position to be successful.”

It was especially meaningful for UMass to get the win, in VCU’s building, because of the history that has haunted them for the last year. Last year’s A-10 championship game, with a spot in the NCAA tournament on the line, was also against VCU, and the Minutewomen let their ultimate goal slip away in a devastating 80-62 loss.

“I told our team before we even played, I circled this game on my calendar. They took something from us last year – they took history from us,” Verdi said. “Had we won that game, that would have been the third time that UMass has ever gone to an NCAA tournament, and they took that from us, so we can never get that back. Now it was about revenge, and it was paid back.”

The goal hasn’t changed for UMass – they want to win a championship, and with a 13-2 record, they’re well on their way to achieving that. Though the Minutewomen may not have quite the bench they need – Verdi has consistently been running just a six- to seven-player rotation every game – where they do excel is the depth that is on the court at any given time.

Sydney Taylor can’t always go off and have a career-high 32-point performance like she did on Wednesday. There will be off-nights for Sam Breen – those are rare, certainly, but she’s still mortal. No matter who struggles on the court, the Minutewomen always seem to have another player waiting in the wings, ready to take over the game at a moment’s notice.

“I think Sam gets a lot of credit – Sam Breen is special, there’s no question about that. But you go around, Destiney (Philoxy is a) 1,000-point scorer, Ber’Nyah (Mayo) has started every single game for us since her freshman year,” Verdi said. “This is nothing new. Then you go Sydney Taylor, another scorer, and Angelique (Ngalakulondi) and Makennah (White) – we want those guys to get the ball, post up with their backs to the basket. It’s not just about Sam Breen. We have other players who can score the basketball, and make something happen.”

Speaking of Taylor, her evolution this season has been one of the team’s highlights. Though Breen often gets a lot of attention for her impressive double-double performances, when Taylor is on, it’s nearly impossible to stop her, or even slow her down.

“I told this from day one, I told her that she could be one of the best players ever, you know, here at the University of Massachusetts, her freshman year and she looked at me sideways, like I was crazy, but that she has qualities,” Verdi offered of Taylor.

Taylor has worked on improving her game. Known mostly as a three-point shooter at the beginning of this season, the junior has shown that she is capable of scoring from absolutely everywhere on the floor. In Wednesday’s win against VCU, she knocked down three triples, sure, but also put up six additional field goals and knocked down both of her free throw attempts (something Verdi preaches about consistently). And it isn’t just her offensive prowess that opponents should be wary of – her defense has been relied upon more and more as the season has progressed.

One more note as conference play continues – keep your eye on Ngalakulondi, who might be one of the most underrated players in the A-10 right now. She’s worked her way up to being a regular starter for the Minutewomen, and currently sits sixth in the nation – not the conference, the nation – in offensive rebounds, with 66 total. She’s also ninth in the nation for offensive rebounds per game (4.4), and has been a consistent, reliable presence for UMass all year. It’s easy to point at players like Breen, Taylor or Philoxy for the Minutewomen’s success. But don’t sleep on Ngalakulondi – she’s one of the cornerstones that keeps this team going.


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