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UM look to fill holes, face Big East teams this season

After losing two key players to graduation, the Massachusetts women’s basketball team needs a lot of players to step up and take on new roles, as the team looks to improve on last year’s 12-18 record.

The Minutewomen will have to work hard on the offensive end this season to fill the voids left by the graduation of Stefanie Gerardot and Sakera Young.

Gerardot was the team’s leading scorer in her final season, averaging 14.9 points per game in addition to four rebounds and finishing the season with 40 assists. She was also affective on the defensive end, and finishing the 2008 season with 26 steals and only committing 27 fouls in 30 games.

Young was the facilitator of the Minutewomen’s offensive attack. The guard posted 101 assists on the season while averaging 8.4 ppg. Young was also a solid defensive contributor, as she finished second on the team with 45 steals.

“Anytime you lose seniors who have played in a program for fours years, it has an impact on the following year,” UMass coach Marnie Dacko said. “We lose [Young’s] speed and her ability to get to the basket and her defensive presence on the floor. [Gerardot] was just the consummate team player who really did everything we asked her to do.”

Teya Wright will be the team’s biggest loss defensively. She led the team in rebounds per game (7.9), blocks (20), and steals (51) last season. She also was fourth on the team with 8.4 ppg. However, Dacko said the team has improved tremendously after working on defense all preseason.

Waiting in the wings are sophomore Kristina Danella and junior Cerie Mosgrove, the top two scorers remaining from last year’s squad. Danella averaged 9.3 ppg and 4.6 rpg in her freshman campaign, while Mosgrove chipped in 5.8 ppg and shot 35 percent from three-point range.

Senior guards Diatiema Hill and Kim Benton will also need to step up and have strong seasons to close their careers. Hill is a solid all-around contributor and could have an impact if she can find and make more shots. Benton is a solid passer who also needs to create more shots for herself as well as her teammates.

This year’s squad will feature three freshmen that could be strong all-around contributors.

Guard Dee Montgomery, forward Shakia Robinson, and center Jasmine Watson all possess good scoring abilities. Montgomery was a two-time Big Nine Conference Player of the Year in Tennessee, while Watson was the No. 23-ranked forward in the nation by Hoopgurlz.com. Watson and Robinson are also solid rebounders, while Watson could be a potent shot-blocker on the defensive end.

“I expect them to come in and make an impact right away,” Dacko said. “They’re a very, very strong class. They have strong personalities. They’re team ball players and skilled athletes, so we expect them to come in and challenge the upper classmen.”

The Minutewomen’s schedule looks both fair and difficult. Of their 17 non-conference matchups, 10 are against teams with .500 winning-percentage or worse last season. UMass will face four winning teams in their first ten games.

However, the majority of the non-conference schedule takes the Minutewomen away from Amherst. They will play 10 of these games on the road.

UMass opens its season this Sunday at home against a strong Boston University squad and will then play two of the next three games at home against Big East teams St. John’s and Villanova. The Minutewomen then hit the road for seven consecutive games, including appearances in the University of Miami Thanksgiving Tournament and the Brown Bear Classic against teams such as Miami, Morgan State and Quinnipiac.

After the Brown Bear Classic, the Minutewomen have a chance to finish off their non-conference schedule in a strong way. Four of their final six games take place in Amherst, with only two against winning teams in Vermont and Harvard.

UMass then has three days off before beginning a tough 14-game Atlantic-10 schedule. The Minutewomen have several difficult stretches against strong opponents. This includes consecutive games against Richmond, Duquesne and George Washington, back-to-back games against Temple and Dayton, and a season ending run against the likes of No. 11/15 Xavier, St. Joseph’s and Charlotte.

In a preseason poll, A-10 coaches picked UMass to finish No. 11 in the conference, ahead of Rhode Island, La Salle and Fordham.

“We’re not looking at the polls right now, we’re looking at improving this ball club,” Dacko said. “I think we’re going to surprise a lot of people. I think our players are working extremely hard and doing everything we asked them to do. I think we are much better and stronger than we were a year ago.”

Mike Mastone can be reached at mmastone@student.umass.edu.

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