UMass women’s basketball set for two straight at high-powered Saint Louis

  • Dannielle Sanderlin and the UMass women's basketball team will face Saint Louis in two games over the weekend. AMBER SEARLS/VCU ATHLETICS

  • Maddie Sims and the UMass women's basketball team will face Saint Louis in two games over the weekend. AMBER SEARLS/VCU ATHLETICS

Staff Writer
Published: 1/21/2021 5:52:32 PM

The Atlantic 10’s highest-scoring squad awaits the UMass women’s basketball team for a pair of games this weekend in a place the Minutewomen rarely win.

Saint Louis averages 71.3 points per game, nearly a full point above UMass’ third-rated mark (70.4). The Minutewomen are 1-6 against the Billikens (2-1, 0-1 A-10) in the Tory Verdi era. They’ve lost three A-10 tournament games against Saint Louis in the past five seasons. UMass (9-2, 5-1 A-10) hasn’t beaten the Billikens in St. Louis since Jan. 2010.

The first game is at 1 p.m. Friday on NBC Sports, then they’ll play again Sunday at 3 p.m. on ESPN-Plus.

“It’s going to be a test for us. It’s always been a tough place for us to play,” Verdi said. “We’re ready for that challenge.”

UMass is sitting second in the A-10, a half game behind unbeaten Dayton. The Minutewomen won their past three games and have won eight of their last 10. They haven’t played in a week since beating VCU, 55-49, in Richmond, Va. on Jan. 14. That was UMass’ first-ever win on the Rams’ home floor.

The Minutewomen were then supposed to play at Richmond the following Sunday, but a positive COVID-19 test in the Spiders program thwarted that tilt.. No problem, they lined up another game against VCU. Not so fast. One of the Rams players tested positive, too. That kicked in both the UMass and Atlantic-10’s health and safety protocols.

Verdi reminded his team of the protocols once he informed them of the test. They separated the team into pods, keeping the starting five and Danielle Sanderlin separate since they played the most minutes against VCU and could have been exposed. Everyone quarantined at home once they returned to Amherst and maintained masking, hand-washing and sanitizing procedures until everyone was cleared to return to practice.

The Minutewomen thought they would be preparing for Dayton and a chance to top the A-10 standings. Then the Flyers paused their program because of a positive COVID test among their Tier 1 personnel (players and coaches). Rather than put 10 days in between games, UMass lined up two games at Chaifetz Arena for this weekend.

“Thankfully our coaching staff is always on their toes. Once they heard the news, they got right to work,” UMass freshman guard Ber’Nyah Mayo said. “They let the players know and we had a good couple days of practice.”

Verdi focused on two elements: rebounding and offensive execution. Saint Louis is the top rebounding team in the Atlantic 10, grabbing 46.7 boards per game, that includes a league-leading 15.7 offensive boards per contest. Myriama Smith Traore is second in the conference individually with 10.3 rebounds per game and grabs 3.7 per game on the offensive end.

“We have to do a good job of finding them, matching their physicality then we have to go retrieve the basketball,” Verdi said.

As far as offensive execution, UMass has only scored more than 70 points once over its previous four games, a blowout of Davidson. They averaged 61.3 points per game during that stretch, including a season-low 47 against Rhode Island and just 55 last game against VCU.

“We took a step back offensively and really ran through stuff. I feel our execution could be a little bit cleaner. We spent some time polishing that up,” Verdi said. “We know it’s going to be an up-tempo game, and we’re fine with that.”

They’re going to need to be at maximum efficiency to keep up with the Billikens and junior guard Ciaja Harbison. She’s the third-leading scorer in the Atlantic 10 at 18.3 points per game, just behind UMass senior Sam Breen (19.2). Harbison also averages two steals per game and leads the conference in minutes (38.7 per game). Saint Louis will play her at both guard spots and looks for her to push the pace in transition.

“She can score at all 3 levels,” Verdi said. “We’ve got to contest the 3 but be ready to put the ball on the floor for herself and her teammates.”

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

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