UMass women’s basketball fighting inconsistency ahead of Atlantic 10 play

  • Anil Soysal, center, of UMass, looks for a shot between UT Rio Grande defenders Makaela Mosley, left, and Megan Johnson, Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2018 at the Mullins Center. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • UMass players Hailey Leidel, front left, and Genesis Rivera, front right, win a rebound against UT Rio Grande defenders Makaela Mosley, left, and Quynne Huggins, Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2018 at the Mullins Center. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Paige McCormick, center right, of UMass, rebounds amid UT Rio Grande defenders Valeria Tapia, from left, Makaela Mosley and Quynne Huggins, Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2018 at the Mullins Center. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 12/27/2018 7:50:28 PM

AMHERST — When Tory Verdi looked at the non-conference schedule he assembled, he saw a path for UMass women’s basketball to break through and win games.

The slate was challenging but not overly demanding, a mixture of games that his team should be able to manage. But two months into the season, Verdi is grappling with the Minutewomen not living up to their potential just yet.

As UMass gets set to travel to Marist on Saturday for its final non-conference test of the season, the Minutewomen are fighting against themselves more than any opponent.

“We lost some games that we should have won and it all leads to being inconsistent,” Verdi said. “We’re getting open shots, we’re missing them, and not only are we missing open shots, we’re missing layups. At times we’re dysfunctional and we’re not playing the way we’re capable of playing. We’re searching for our identity still and we have a lot of new faces and sometimes it takes some time.”

In each of their last four losses, the Minutewomen have held the lead or tied in the fourth quarter. They lost on a buzzer-beater to Northeastern on the road to begin December after leading by nine with four minutes left.

But UMass’ worst performance arguably came last Friday against UMass-Lowell at home. The Minutewomen went on a 7-0 run early in the fourth quarter to break a tie. Within 90 seconds, the River Hawks had taken the lead back and ended up scoring 13 straight points before holding on for a 62-59 win.

Junior Hailey Leidel said those games were learning experiences for the inexperienced roster UMass is utilizing. After Leidel and senior Jessica George, four of the next six leaders in playing time are freshmen and the other two are sophomores. Leidel said that inexperience has hurt in those late-game situations this season.

“We have some girls that definitely play a lot — especially in those games — who haven’t even played a full college year yet,” Leidel said. “Just learning the little details that make a difference in those types of games and learning about the right plays to make. The fact that we’ve already had those games is great because now if we have those games in conference, we’ll know more what to do and have more confidence when those situations come about.”

Even Leidel has suffered from the same inconsistency that has plagued the rest of her team. Despite leading UMass in scoring, the junior guard is having her worst statistical offensive season in her career. Her 14.5 points per game are a full point lower than each of her first two years and her 31 percent 3-point shooting percentage is eight points lower than those two seasons.

Part of the reason is that Leidel does not have the same supporting cast around her, especially with the lack of scoring production coming from the post. She also is attracting even more attention from defenses and the easy shots she used to get have vanished as she’s forced into making tougher shots in bad situations.

“My shot has been kind of off this year and I have noticed in general when I think about the shots I’m getting in games, they’re not always that easy,” Leidel said. “Sometimes I’m taking stepback 3s or contested 3s at the end of the shot clock, so just knowing the scouting report and people knowing me, I’m not getting those easy shots because they know not to leave me wide open. I really haven’t found my rhythm completely.”

Verdi said he wants players like freshmen Asia McCoy and Destiney Philoxy to help take some of the scoring burden off Leidel. But he also called on his young post players, Anil Soysal and Jessica Nelson, to do a better job at supplying that interior presence UMass lost with Maggie Mulligan’s graduation.

However, all of that improvement starts at practice, which Verdi said has been disappointing most of the past few weeks. He said he sensed the past two performances — both losses — coming because of how poorly the Minutewomen practiced before those games.

The third-year coach said his players have responded better in the week since the loss to UMass-Lowell and is hoping it will lead to a more consistent effort Saturday.

“Every time you step on the floor, you have to perform to the best of your abilities,” Verdi said. “We can’t just go through the motions. We’re not skilled enough and good enough to just show up and say ‘Hey, we’re going to win this game because we just have better players than you.’ We’re not good enough, we’re not there yet as a program.

“So we have to show up each and every day both offensively and defensively and do all the little things. Right now, we’re missing out on all those little things, and those little things turn into big things.”

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