UMass women’s basketball program returns core looking for breakthrough

  • UMass guard Haley Leidel, left, drives against Olivia Gumbs, of George Washington, last season. Leidel has a chance to end her four years in Amherst as the program’s all-time leader in games played (22 games away), starts (26 away), minutes played (969 away) and points (505 points), and already holds the 3-point field goals record with 226. COURTESY J. ANTHONY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 6/17/2019 7:16:33 PM

AMHERST — Last season was a major step forward for the UMass women’s basketball program, even if it left fans wanting more.

The fact the Minutewomen has their best season in 12 years, finished at .500 or better for the first time since 2006-07 and still felt like it underachieved a bit is a testament to the progress Tory Verdi has made in three years at the helm. He said in an interview last month that the early part of his tenure was difficult on the recruiting path because of a lack of respect from local AAU and high schools around the UMass program.

It was clear with last year’s freshman class that the narrative around UMass has shifted, and this year’s crop of new players is even more talented on paper. However, what should excite fans the most about next year’s Minutewomen is the returning cast who helped make the turnaround actually happen with their play on the court.

The centerpiece of this turnaround is rising senior Hailey Leidel, whose name will be plastered all over the UMass record book when her career ends next spring. Leidel has a chance to end her four years in Amherst as the program’s all-time leader in games played (22 games away), starts (26 away), minutes played (969 away) and points (505 points), and already holds the 3-point field goals record with 226.

Last season was a down year for Leidel as she only averaged 13.9 points per game and shot 33 percent from behind the arc. Some of that should be credited to how teams defended Leidel last season, but the addition of Lynne-Ann Kokoski to the staff means UMass will find more unique ways to better utilize their sharpshooter.

If Leidel can be open more often, her numbers could easily return to the form she had during her first two seasons when she averaged 15.5 points per game. None of the offensive changes will take away from her rebounding prowess, leading the team with 7.2 boards per game last season.

The other member of UMass’ senior class is Vashnie Perry, who became a vital role player for the Minutewomen in conference play last season. She was the team’s third-leading scorer in Atlantic 10 games after barely playing in the non-conference schedule.

Perry isn’t going to be a great scoring threat — she averaged 8.1 points per game in conference action — but she’s a strong defender and takes care of the basketball. The Florida Atlantic transfer won’t take over a game the way some of the other returners can, but her experience and intangibles were a major difference for UMass late in the season.

The Minutewomen are expecting Bre Hampton-Bey to rebound from a sophomore slump of sorts last season after being an Atlantic 10 all-rookie team selection in 2017-18. Hampton-Bey started off strong with six double-digit scoring performances in the first seven games, but hit 10 points just four times over the last 24 games.

When Hampton-Bey is at her best, she is an excellent distributor and a strong shooter, both things she struggled with at the tail end of last season. She was a 36-percent shooter in conference play — almost 10 points lower than her season averaged as a freshman — and just 22 of her 77 assists last season came in A10 games. Heading into her third year, Hampton-Bey should be able to take the reins of the offense and run with them next season despite a positionless offensive philosophy.

There is also a lot of optimism surrounding sophomore Destiney Philoxy, who played a lot of minutes as a freshman. While fellow sophomore Asia McCoy kind of tailed off from a production standpoint as last season went along and eventually transferred, Philoxy only got stronger as the calendar turned to February and March.

Philoxy reached double digits seven times in her last eight games, including three 20-point games and one with 19 points. She shot 53.3 percent from the floor in those games while also dishing out 3.8 assists in that stretch. In a time of the year where averages don’t raise much, Philoxy improved her scoring average by more than two points in the final four weeks of the season.

The only other returning player who averaged at least 10 minutes per game in conference play is center Anil Soysal, who had her ups and downs as a redshirt freshman. Her height made her a threat in the post, but she only averaged 4.6 points and 3.4 rebounds while registering just nine blocks.

The Turkish center was limited in her mobility as she recovered from the knee injury that forced her to redshirt in 2017-18. If she is fully healed, Soysal could make the largest jump of any returning player this offseason.

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