UMass basketball: Minutewomen picked 11th in Atlantic 10 Conference preseason poll

UMass women’s sophomore guard Lilly Ferguson walks out onto the court during the Mullins Madness event earlier this month at the Mullins Center in Amherst.

UMass women’s sophomore guard Lilly Ferguson walks out onto the court during the Mullins Madness event earlier this month at the Mullins Center in Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

By JEFF LAJOIE

Staff Writer

Published: 10-26-2023 2:54 PM

A lot has changed for the UMass women’s basketball team since they last took the court on March 20 — an 89-87 loss to Harvard in the second round of the WNIT.

Head coach Tory Verdi left to take the job at Pittsburgh, and Mike Leflar was elevated to the head coaching position in Amherst. Leflar brought in 10 new players, six transfers and four freshmen, essentially hitting the reset button for a program that enjoyed new levels of success over the past few seasons.

Leflar and graduate transfer Bre Bellamy (William & Mary) were the Minutewomen’s representatives during Thursday’s Atlantic 10 Conference media day, held at the Henrico Sports & Events Center, the site of the 2024 A-10 Women's Basketball Championship in Henrico, Va.

“Just the newness of it all,” Leflar said Thursday of the excitement of taking over at UMass. “I’ve been on the staff the last five years so taking over the program and being able to add 10 new pieces… a lot of times when coaches take over programs, there are eight-to-ten players already there and maybe he or she doesn’t have buy-in from everyone. So I was able to add 10 new pieces – four freshmen, six transfers – to those returning and I feel like I was able to connect with all 13 players, have great relationships with all 13, and I feel we have a lot of buy-in now.”

With all the new pieces coming to Amherst for the 2023-24 season, which begins Nov. 6 at home against Saint Peter’s, there remains a lot of unknowns. The Minutewomen were picked to finish 11th out of 15 teams in the A-10 preseason poll released Thursday and voted on by a panel of Atlantic 10 head coaches. UMass didn’t have a player picked on one of the league’s three preseason all-conference teams.

“I think we’re very well balanced,” offered Bellamy, who averaged 7.0 points and 4.8 rebounds per game at William & Mary. “I don’t think there’s any one or two people that we rely heavily on. I feel like that’s kind of rare these days. And I like that people are finding their confidence, finding how their style works with everyone else.”

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Rhode Island was picked as the preseason favorite, followed by Saint Joseph’s and Saint Louis. Rhode Island and UMass were regular season co-champions a year ago.

“I think we can just be a really good team by committee,” said Leflar. “I don’t know what our team’s ceiling is just yet. I know we will reach our ceiling. I know we have a group that’s working hard each day.”

Leflar noted Bellamy and senior transfer Tori Hyduke (Drexel) as experienced players who should lead the way this winter. Stefanie Kulesza, one of just three holdovers from last year’s team, is also expected to make a leap this season, and freshman center Chinenye Odenigbo from Walpole has also impressed during the early going. Odenigbo was one of the team’s standouts from an August preseason trip to Croatia.

“I think we want to play fast and we want to take good shots, but I think it can be by committee,” Leflar said. “I want to have multiple scorers on the floor. I think the style we played in the past – continuity ball screen motion, is our hallmark. The last few years we had really talented individuals, and we were able to utilize those, but it’s sharing the basketball, team basketball on both ends of the floor.”

The departures of Sam Breen and Destiney Philoxy, as well as the transfers of Sydney Taylor (Louisville) and Angelique Ngalakulondi (Missouri) have certainly created plenty of opportunities for newcomers to shine. Bellamy said that with almost an entirely new roster, leadership will be especially important for the Minutewomen.

“I think that I can use my experience to help out some of the new girls,” she explained. “The great thing about what [Leflar] said is that we have a lot of new pieces, but we were able to secure new pieces that have bought in. Off the court is just as important as on the court stuff, so I know that I can have a role in that and just using my leadership and trying to mesh with everyone else.

“I knew in my grad year, I wanted to go to a place where the coach wanted me to be the best I could and not just [the player] I was going into it,” she continued.

As for the schedule, UMass will play an exhibition game against Division II Assumption this Sunday before the opener against Saint Peter’s. The non-conference slate features games against Harvard and Boston College, as well as a trip to Cancun, Mexico to compete in the Cancun Challenge over Thanksgiving weekend. The Minutewomen will play games against Green Bay, Washington State and Maryland across three days.

“Always excited to have Harvard and BC on the schedule because they’re local rivals. That’s something I want to commit to in the future,” Leflar said. “Cancun is a highlight over Thanksgiving for our team. We’ve got seven-to-eight families of players coming down there as well so that’s exciting.”