UMass women’s basketball team looks to grow on Portugal trip

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  • Northampton graduate Loraine Joensen shoots free throws at a UMass women’s basketball practice in the Champions Center in Amherst. The Minutewomen leave for Portugal on Friday. GAZETTE STAFF / JOSH WALFISH

  • UMass women’s basketball head coach Tori Verdi, left, directs practice in the Champions Center in Amherst. The Minutewomen leave for Portugal on Friday. GAZETTE STAFF / JOSH WALFISH

  • UMass guard Destiney Philoxy prepares to attack the hoop during women’s basketball practice in the Champions Center in Amherst. The Minutewomen leave for Portugal on Friday. GAZETTE STAFF / JOSH WALFISH

Staff Writer
Published: 8/15/2019 8:07:20 PM
Modified: 8/15/2019 8:07:10 PM

AMHERST — The summer can be a monotonous time for college basketball players.

Many of them are on campus taking summer classes and going through practices and strength training programs with their teammates. Those sessions just feel different though for the players because the next game is still three or four months away.

Step into the Champions Center this summer, though, and the dog days of summer are nowhere to be found. UMass has been hard at work preparing for its foreign trip to Portugal and it has given many of the veterans a new energy.

“This trip kind of gives us a goal,” senior guard Hailey Leidel said. “Normally in the summer, you’re just working out and it feels like it’s just summer workouts, but it’s good to have a trip in mind and a goal in mind.”

The Minutewomen leave Friday for their trip, which will last eight days on the Iberian Peninsula and feature three games. UMass will play on Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday before returning to Amherst on Aug. 24.

For coach Tory Verdi and his staff, the three contests will give them the chance to witness the fruit of their labors to turn around the UMass program. Optimism is running high inside the building with a strong freshman class joining a resilient returning core that just led UMass to its most wins in more than a decade.

And the trip to Portugal will give Verdi the chance to experiment and figure out the lineups that work best for the season ahead.

“It gives us an opportunity to really assess our players and know exactly where we are,” Verdi said. “It gives us an opportunity to see and get a glimpse of what we can be overall this season. But overall, it’s about the opportunity and the experience to go overseas and go have a lot of fun, understand another culture and have the experience to play a couple of games.”

Both Leidel and sophomore guard Destiney Philoxy said the freshmen class has integrated itself well within the team off the court and the chemistry in that area is at a high in the Verdi tenure. But the team is still trying to figure out how those connections can translate onto the court.

Leidel said finding that on-court cohesion is her biggest goal for the trip.

“Off the court, we definitely have that connection already, but on the court, we’re still trying to get to know each other,” Leidel said. “It’s coming, but it’ll be nice once we get to Portugal to kind of see it happen live in a real game situation instead of us five-on-five against each other.”

FRESH FACES — UMass will rely heavily on its freshmen class to play minutes — especially in the shorthanded frontcourt.

This year’s group is arguably the most talented in a long time for UMass, but Verdi said what sets them apart is their character off the court. It is their personalities that have given both the coaches and returning players confidence in the freshmen’s ability to succeed quickly at UMass.

Philoxy said she appreciates how selfless the freshmen are and how open they are to finding ways for improvement.

“They like to listen,” Philoxy said. “Not all freshmen want to hear criticism, but these freshmen, they hear it and they grow from it. They have their own skills that just add more pieces to our puzzle.”

Leidel said she wishes every freshman class would get the chance to practice and learn during the summer as much as this year’s team has been able to do thanks to the foreign trip. She said the biggest benefit for her younger teammates is being able to learn the simple lessons about how to be a Division I college basketball player and the struggles that come with the territory.

“They’re already going to know what it feels like to do three-hour practices, do a lift before practice, just the game-like drills that we’re doing,” Leidel said. “This is the season right now, so once we get to that point in the season, it won’t be anything new and the adjustment period has already happened. We’re going to be able to keep rolling and it’ll help us flow better into the season.”

TEAM OF DESTINEY — Last season, Philoxy ended the year playing her best basketball.

The freshman guard found her confidence in the latter half of the season, helping propel UMass to its best Atlantic 10 finish in 12 years. She averaged 17 points per game over the final eight games, eclipsing 15 points five times after doing it just once in her first 21 appearances.

This year, Philoxy has more ownership of the offense as the starting point guard, and Verdi said he’s seeing the sophomore grow into that role.

“She’s so invested and she wants to be the engine to all of this and make us go,” Verdi said. “She’s taken on that responsibility and that’s nice. She wants to do something special and I feel like her best basketball is still ahead of her, so she could have a breakout season this year.”

Philoxy was known for her ability to get to the basket last season, so she said she worked a lot on forcing teams to respect her as a shooter outside the paint. She attempted just 39 3-pointers in 29 games, but still made 48 percent of her shots from the floor.

She said she has been playing with more confidence this summer now that more is expected of her, and she’s tried to be more of a vocal leader in her new role.

“Now it’s my turn to help the freshmen and even the returners understand what I see on the court and what they see and encourage them,” Philoxy said. “If one’s down, we’re all down, and we can’t afford to have that.”

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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