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WALFISH: UMass women’s basketball living large during 10-game winning streak

  • UMass head coach Tory Verdi, left, gets set to talk to his players during a timeout against Southern Connecticut, Dec. 30 at the Mullins Center. AP

Staff Writer
Published: 1/13/2020 8:02:11 PM
Modified: 1/13/2020 8:01:25 PM

AMHERST

Most people thought Tory Verdi was crazy.

Perhaps no coach not named Geno Auriemma had as much job security as he did after the 2015-16 season at Eastern Michigan. He took over the Eagles in the wake of NCAA investigations into the conduct of his predecessor and steered the program to 24 wins in his third season then to 22 wins in 2015-16. After back-to-back WNIT appearances, Eastern Michigan was headed in the right direction again.

Yet Verdi left Eastern Michigan after the 2015-16 season for UMass, a program that had become a doormat in the Atlantic 10. He left a school that had won 20 games five times in the previous seven seasons for one that had just a single 20-win team in its history. Verdi won 46 games in his last two seasons at Eastern Michigan, matching the total victories UMass had in the previous six seasons prior to his arrival.

The decay in the UMass program started at the turn of the millennium, following a small pocket of success in the mid-to-late 1990s. The Minutewomen made the postseason three times in a four-year span between 1994 and 1998, and had a winning record in conference from the 94-95 season through 1999-2000. In the 19 seasons since that one, UMass had losing A10 records 16 times and hit .500 in the other three years.

It was a steep challenge for Verdi to turn around the program, one that was probably more difficult than he imagined when he took the job. His first team had just 10 players — one of whom was at UMass on a soccer scholarship — and won just nine games.

He relied on a little-known freshman named Hailey Leidel to lead the team, which she did averaging 15.5 points and 5.9 rebounds per game. She played 623 out of a possible 650 minutes in conference play and the Minutewomen finished with just three Atlantic 10 wins that year.

Fast forward three years, and this past summer became the most important in Verdi’s UMass career. He spoke about how special he felt this team could be if they stayed healthy and there was optimism for those who followed the program. It felt like this was the year that decision to leave Eastern Michigan would pay off and Verdi would help lead two programs out of two very different but equally tricky situations into success.

But then came the opening-night loss to Merrimack and many people rightfully doubted this team. The Minutewomen were outplayed for 40 minutes by a team playing its first Division I basketball game. The pessimism returned around whether this program could ever return to its past but brief glory or even become relevant in the Atlantic 10.

On Saturday, Verdi was able to have the last laugh at all those who questioned his decision almost four years ago and who doubted his team on Nov. 5. He walked into a victorious postgame locker room after UMass’ 61-43 triumph over Saint Joseph’s and was drenched with water from an excited bunch of players. It became another hallmark moment in Verdi’s resurrection of women’s basketball at UMass, a feather in his cap that won’t be taken out anytime soon.

The Minutewomen (13-3) have now won 10 straight games for the first time in their history and are 3-0 in conference for the first time since that 1999-2000 season. Postseason basketball is an attainable goal for this group whether it be the NCAA Tournament, as ESPN projected last week, or the WNIT, which feels a little more realistic. For most of these players, they were sold on a bright future for UMass and could quickly taste the potential.

Leidel is the last member of that original Verdi squad still at UMass. In the last 40 days, the Minutewomen have won as many games both overall (nine) and in conference (three) as that first team did during the entire 2016-17 season. They have a chance to surpass both of those totals Wednesday night at the Mullins Center against La Salle — the team with the current longest losing streak in the A10 at nine games.

“The fact that we’ve won 10 in a row is surreal to me,” Leidel said Saturday. “The last couple of years, we’d win two, we’d lose two, we’d win two, we’d lose three, it was always a pattern, we never had this long of a (streak) of consistent good basketball. It’s great because everybody is putting in so much work … the fact that it’s finally paying off in a very significant way is just awesome.”

The scariest part about UMass is that two of its three best players are currently coming off the bench. Sam Breen, the Penn State transfer who has made waves since becoming eligible less than a month ago, and Destiney Philoxy, the slashing sophomore point guard unafraid to take the ball to the rim who came back from injury two games ago, have both started games on the bench because the Minutewomen found a groove with its current starting five. It’s a unit that outside of Leidel doesn’t jump off the page, but is full of role players finding ways to make an impact that isn’t always on the stat sheet.

Vashnie Perry is as confident as can be running the offense right now and has proven adept at scoring or distributing depending upon how defenses decide to play her. Paige McCormick is a tough defender who has shown an impeccable ability to grab critical rebounds and finish around the hoop when she gets her chances. Maeve Donnelly is the towering freshman center who makes it nearly impossible to score in the lane against UMass, altering way more shots than her three blocks per game. Bre Hampton-Bey is simply a utility player who is more than capable of handling the ball, finding ways to score, stealing passes or just being a bulldog on defense.

The challenge for Verdi will be finding ways to keep his core seven players fresh through a long and taxing conference season, but if UMass can receive minimal contributions from freshmen guards Grace Heeps and Sydney Taylor, this season could get even more special for the Minutewomen.

“We’re at a really high level, but I don’t think we have a limit to how well we can play,” Leidel said. “We’re playing really good – probably the best I’ve seen since I’ve been here – but I don’t think this team has any limits to how well we can play.”

Josh Walfish can be reached at jwalfish@gazettenet.com. Follow him on Twitter @JoshWalfishDHG. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage.



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