WNIT: UMass women’s basketball’s ‘Savage Seven’ prepped for Villanova 




Staff Writer
Published: 3/18/2021 7:09:14 PM

Get the team together. They need to pull one last job.

The UMass women’s basketball team will use the same seven players that sparked its historic Atlantic 10 tournament run when the Minutewomen begin the program’s first national postseason tournament since 1998 on Friday. UMass will face Villanova at 8 p.m. in Charlotte, N.C., for the opening round of the WNIT.

“We are going with the savage seven. We’re not going to change who we are or what we’re doing,” UMass coach Tory Verdi said. “Our players that we have on our team right now are totally invested and sure excited about this opportunity we’re going to do everything we can to take advantage of this situation.”

UMass (14-7) played four games in four days with just two available bench players en route to the championship game. Senior forward Sam Breen was on the floor every minute, including five extra minutes in overtime against Saint Joseph’s. She was named to the all-tournament team with junior point guard Destiney Philoxy and sophomore sharpshooter Sydney Taylor. Philoxy and freshman Ber’Nyah Mayo helmed the guard spots, and freshman Makennah White started with Breen in the post. Sophomore Angelique Ngalakulondi was often the first player off the bench and forced her way into more minutes. Freshman early enrollee Stefanie Kulesza was pressed into duty after graduating early from high school and expecting just to  be a practice player and learn UMass’ systems.

“The seven of us have really bonded and I don’t think there’s another group of players or coaches I’d rather do this with,” Breen said.

The Minutewomen returned home late Sunday night then had two days off, learning they’d qualified for the tournament Monday night. UMass has only appeared in the postseason three times, making the NCAA tournament in 1996 and 1998 after qualifying for the WNIT in 1995.

“We were super excited to get the call. I didn’t get much sleep, I was so excited my adrenaline was running,” Breen ssaid. “I could not get tired even though I knew my body was tired.”

The Minutewomen maintained they weren’t tired for the entire A-10 run and that adrenaline was pushing them through. Their two days of rest may prove more important than the time spent preparing for the Wildcats this week.

“I can feel it. I can feel every bit of it — every charge I took, every hustle play I made,” Philoxy said. “My body did hurt, but the two days off did help a lot. It gave me time to recover and take care of my body.”

UMass began preparing for Villanova (15-6) on Wednesday and flew out of Bradley International Airport that night. The Minutewomen went through one more practice Thursday in Charlotte. They’ll shoot around and go through a walk through Friday before the evening tip-off.

“It’s gonna be a whirlwind. The A-10 tournament flew by,” Verdi said. “This is going to be a whirlwind again from a preparation standpoint.”

The Wildcats reached the Big East tournament semifinals before they fell to top-seeded UConn. Sophomore forward Mdison Siegrist led the Big East in scoring at 22.6 points per game and rebounds at 10 per game. She racked up 12 double-doubles and scored at least 30 points three times.

“We’re going to be creative and take advantage of our length and some of our size,” Verdi said. “We’re going to make her touches hard and try to crowd her.”

Villanova isn’t an entirely unfamiliar opponent. UMass has face the Wildcats five times with a 2-3 record, but the teams haven’t played since 2010. They have two common opponents this season: Saint John’s and La Salle.

The Minutewomen bested the Red Storm on a Sam Breen buzzer-beater in December, while Villanova went 2-0 against their Big East foe. UMass split two games against La Salle in A-10 play, while Villanova took down its Philadelphia rival in early December by a comfortable 26-point margin.

“We know that they’re a team full of shooters and we have to stay out on them,” Philoxy said. “We’ll be prepared.”

No matter what happens against Villanova, UMass is guaranteed at least two games in Charlotte. Florida and Charlotte University are facing off in the other side of the bracket. The winners will advance in the bracket with an opportunity to continue to play for the tournament championship, while the losers will fall to the consolation bracket with the potential of one more game Monday with a victory.

“Any postseason is incredible, especially with seven people in a year of COVID. Being able to go to any postseason tournament and going in with the same mentality of ‘we want to win’ is gonna be huge,” Breen said. “We’re going to make the most of it and play our hearts out like we have been.”

Kyle Grabowski can be reached at kgrabowski@gazettenet.com. Follow him on Twitter @kylegrbwsk.

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