Walfish: UMass women’s basketball isn’t done making history just yet

  • Sam Breen, right, of UMass, shoots after getting past Kyla Whitehead, of Dayton, Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2020 at the Mullins Center. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • UMass players Bre Hampton-Bey, center, and Sam Breen, right, defend Jayla Scaife, of Dayton, Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2020 at the Mullins Center. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 3/3/2020 11:14:03 PM

AMHERST

Four years ago, no one was intimidated to come to the Mullins Center.

The running joke was that teams didn’t need shootaround to beat UMass, all they needed to do was show up for the game and the victory would be a cakewalk. There was no preparation needed to face the Minutewomen because the program was “below rock bottom” as fourth-year coach Tory Verdi put it.

This season, though, no opponent that has come to Amherst has had an easy time dealing with UMass. Atlantic 10 champion Dayton needed a few favorable calls in the final seconds to escape with a win and keep its hopes of a perfect run through the conference alive. The week before, Fordham was fighting off the Minutewomen until the bitter end before emerging with a win. After that game, Fordham coach Stephanie Gaitley told Verdi that she knew the Rams had just beaten a really good basketball team.

So after four years, UMass has solidified the respect card among the Atlantic 10. Everyone knows that anything less than their best effort will potentially result in the Minutewomen doing to them what they did to St. Bonaventure on Tuesday night. No one will take UMass women’s basketball lightly again, which is a major credit to Verdi and his staff.

But earning respect is not the end of the road for this year’s team, the Minutewomen still have some more history to write over the next few weeks. The victory over the Bonnies was the magical 20th win of the season for UMass, tying the program record. That historic squad was the 1995-96 team that broke through for UMass’ first of two NCAA Tournament appearances and finished with an identical 20-10 record the Minutewomen currently sport.

And similar to that team, this year’s squad should break through for a spot in the postseason for the first time in 22 years. There is a decent chance the Minutewomen end up in the WNIT – especially if they can set the new standard in Amherst by beating Saint Louis on Friday in the Atlantic 10 quarterfinals. If for some reason that committee overlooks the accomplishments of this year’s team, there’s always the Women’s Basketball Invitation, which would still provide invaluable practice time and experience for the young core of this team.

Before we worry about the future, though, let’s look at the reality of the current situation. UMass is playing its best basketball of the season right now. The Minutewomen are light-years ahead of where they were when they went on that history-making 11-game winning streak earlier in the season. Everyone is clicking right now as has been proven by the manner UMass has won its last four games.

The Minutewomen never gave the Bonnies room to breathe on Tuesday, but they didn’t give much slack to Rhode Island either in the season finale on Saturday. Last week, they struggled on offense in the first half at Saint Joseph’s, but they allowed just two more points in the opening 20 minutes than they did against St. Bonaventure. And to start off this latest winning streak, UMass methodically took down Davidson, slowly but surely suffocating the Wildcats until the game was in hand.

The last team to beat UMass? That would be the same Billikens squad that survived a scare from 13th-seeded George Mason on Tuesday. It’s the same program that started off Verdi’s tenure with a 40-point shellacking in the first round of the A10 Tournament four years ago. It only makes sense they would stand in the way of UMass reaching the semifinals for the first time in 18 years.

The two teams that will meet in Dayton are vastly different than the ones that met on Feb. 16 in St. Louis. For one, the Minutewomen have found ways to utilize Maeve Donnelly on offense, creating yet another mismatch for the Billikens to defend. It also will help that UMass enters the matchup riding a four-game winning streak and not fresh off a heartbreaking home loss. There is no substitute for confidence and there is no doubt UMass is a confident bunch right now.

On the other side of the court, Saint Louis has alternated wins and losses in the five games since beating the Minutewomen. The Billikens haven’t shot better than 40 percent in any of those five games, making the 49 percent they shot against UMass seem unrealistic to match considering how well the Minutewomen are playing defense. Then there’s the simple fact that they couldn’t slow down George Mason’s one all-conference player, how will they be able to slow down Sam Breen or Hailey Leidel?

UMass has grown up a lot since a stunning opening-night loss to Merrimack, and it has grown just as much in the last four games when the Minutewomen were basically playing playoff basketball. After the flight back from St. Louis, the team knew it would likely need to win out to secure home-court advantage in the conference tournament, and it did exactly that, thriving under the pressure and surpassing every challenge thrown at them.

The ending of this fairy-tale season will be written over the next few weeks, but there’s still plenty of ink left in the pen for when UMass continues to add to the story.

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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