UMass notebook: Minutewomen won’t back down against Notre Dame as NCAA tourney matchup approaches

Staff Writer 
Published: 3/16/2022 9:12:28 PM
Modified: 3/16/2022 9:12:16 PM

Talking to UMass head coach Tory Verdi and the UMass women’s basketball team, you’d never know that they’d just won an Atlantic 10 championship. Title in hand, the 12th-seeded Minutewomen are just as hungry as ever to keep winning games, and they’re going to rely on that competitive energy as they prepare for their opening-round NCAA Tournament matchup against No. 5 Notre Dame on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. in Norman, Okla.

“They have a lot of size. They do a great job of attacking in transition. That's going to be a huge key for us, stopping the ball really early on,” Verdi said of Notre Dame. “They’re averaging 73 points per game, do a great job of crashing the boards, a lot of length at all positions, a lot of really skilled guards who like to attack into the rim, so we’ve got to contain dribble penetration. And then lastly, we’ve got to do a great job of boxing out and rebounding. Throughout the course of the game, we’ve got to match their physicality.”

Luckily for UMass, this Notre Dame team is markedly similar to a Dayton team that it just played (and beat) in the A-10 championship game. The Minutewomen have struggled against teams that are significantly longer than them, as well as those who run a tight zone – which Verdi expects the Fighting Irish to do. But if the A-1o tournament run showed anything, the Minutewomen have the skill and ability to get around those obstacles when they need to. Though UMass is the lower seed, call the Minutewomen an underdog at your own peril.

“I guess a lot of people would say we’re the underdog and I mean, I don't really mind that, because when we win, there's gonna be a lot of talk,” UMass’ Sydney Taylor said on her team’s ‘underdog’ moniker. “But I think we are kind of at that same level, and we're playing at that same level with them.” 

REPRESENTING THE COMMONWEALTH 

UMass is the only team from Massachusetts that qualified for the NCAA Division I tournament on either the men’s or women’s side. It means a little something extra for the team to represent the entire Commonwealth during the postseason. 

“(We have) a tremendous amount of pride in that. We've worked really hard for this,” offered Verdi. “I’ve said this all along, the one thing… that we wanted to get is respect. We have not had that for whatever reason. I get it, there hasn't been any tradition here, there hasn't been any history here. People would just laugh and mock our program. We've turned that corner now, and we've gotten the respect. I know Notre Dame is preparing for us. I know that for a fact…. the biggest thing to me is I finally feel like we've gotten some respect within the Commonwealth.”

It means something to the players, too, including Destiney Philoxy who said she couldn’t even point out the state of Massachusetts on a map before coming to play for the Minutewomen.

“We usually play for us, but knowing that we have other teams who would want to be in our position, we just want to play for them also,” Philoxy said. “I mean, we play for us mostly, though.”

EQUITY QUESTIONS 

After last year’s March Madness tournament exposed a lot of the inequities in regard to the amount of resources allocated between the men and women’s tournaments, all eyes will be on this year’s tourney to see if those disparities are addressed. 

“There needs to be change, and hopefully there is change. It's important and it's important to our players and the fact that there’s that inequality, it's not OK,” Verdi said. “I'm interested in seeing a lot of similarities, and I hope there are. If there are not, then I think that they need to be voiced, as they were voiced before.”

Verdi also said he hoped that more fans and media wold come out and support his team and the tournament as a whole.

“I think that's the exposure part of it – that's the exciting thing, is the exposure part and, you know, I hope now with fans having the opportunity to get out there, we need to fill the seats as well and we need to continue with the viewership. That's how you grow the game,” Verdi said. “I think people are starting to realize, it wasn't that it wasn't good basketball before, because it was. For whatever reason, now with the opportunities to get on national TV, just more people are starting to pay attention to women's basketball and there are more opportunities.”

TRAVEL PLANS

When Verdi spoke to the media on Wednesday afternoon, the team still didn’t know yet exactly when their flight would depart for Norman, Oklahoma. It’s the ‘madness’ part of March Madness, that everything happens at a moment’s notice and teams have to be quick on their feet when it comes to putting together a game plan.

No matter what happens, the Minutewomen think they’re more than prepared to handle it. 

“We have no idea what time we're leaving (Thursday), so that kind of throws a wrench into everything right now. Ideally, I'd like to practice 9-11 (a.m.) and then leave at 12 (p.m.) and try to get down there no later than 5 or 6 (p.m.),” Verdi said. “(Friday) we have a practice down there and then it just starts how we prepare the day before a game.” 

Regardless of when exactly the Minutewomen touch down, Verdi and the players want to make it clear that they’ll be ready to give their all against the Irish.

“You have to understand, the players that we have are ultra competitive. They will go in with guns blazing, I can promise you that,” he said. “These guys, they are competitive. They want to win and they're gonna make sure that they do everything possible to see that through and make that happen. If we do the things that we're capable of doing, the things that we've done all year long, we will put ourselves in the position to do something special.”

Saturday’s game will be televised on ESPN2.


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