For three years, senior co-captain Jasmine Watson had toiled endlessly in, more often than not, losing efforts for the Massachusetts women’s basketball team. Quietly, she went about her work as the Minutewomen’s dominating low post presence, filling out impressive box scores and collecting numerous accolades, but rarely tasting victory.
So on the day she scored 21 points — enough to make her just the 18th member of the program’s prestigious 1,000 points scored club — it made perfect sense that Watson, who now has 1,001 career points, would be more proud of the dominating 83-53 season-opening victory over Kent State than the personal feat that will etch her name in the school’s record books forever.
“I really tried to put the thousand points in the back of my head,” Watson said after the game. “I told my mom, even if I have zero points and zero rebounds, if we win the game, that’s all that matters.
“This is my first game of my senior season, so, it means a little bit more, but the fact that we got the win just makes it even better.”
With Watson also chipping in eight rebounds, four blocks, four steals and three assists, UMass (1-0, 0-0 Atlantic 10) cruised to its highest point total (83) since Nov. 28, 2010, and largest margin of victory (30) since a 91-57 win over Yale on Jan. 22, 2008.
Third-year coach Sharon Dawley was pleased with the way her team, which also received double-digit scoring efforts from sophomore Emily Mital (16 points), redshirt junior co-captain Kiara Bomben (13) and freshman Rashida Timbilla (11), distributed the scoring load against the Golden Flashes (0-1, 0-0 Mid-American Conference).
“(I was) very excited about the fact that we had 11 players score,” Dawley said. “We’ve been practicing like that. It’s a very unselfish team. Everybody looks for their teammate, almost, at times to a fault … but I love that about our team.
“I like this team a lot (and) I like how they show up to work every day.”
Timbilla paired her 11 points with 10 rebounds — five coming off the offensive glass — to record a double-double in her very first career game suiting up for the Minutewomen. Mital’s 16 points — 12 coming from beyond the 3-point line — were also a career-high.
Mital, who is known as “Tex” amongst her teammates because of her Southwest roots, started only four games as a freshmen last year, but worked diligently throughout the offseason to make sure she’d be ready for an increased workload in 2012-13.
“I know coach has put a lot of trust in me to give me the ball and shoot it when I’m open,” she said. “So, I just kind of took it and ran with it.
“I just go in with the mentality: if I’m open, I’m shooting it, and if it doesn’t go in, I’m making the next one.”
Redshirt sophomore Millie Niggeling led all scorers off the bench with seven points on 3-of-3 shooting, drawing praise from Dawley.
“I thought Millie’s minutes were key,” she said. “Three different times during the game I felt like we were in a (scoring) drought, and Millie knocked down a shot. That’s huge.”
The victory for UMass, which only trailed twice in the game, was very nearly wire-to-wire. Kent State held a 4-3 lead in the game’s opening minutes, but a relentless offensive attack that saw the Minutewomen shoot 61.1% from the floor, including 70% from beyond the arc in the first half, helped UMass stave off an 11-3 Golden Flashes scoring run before opening up a 15-point advantage by halftime.
Though plagued by some sloppy passing that Dawley chalked up to nervous and excited jitters, it was more of the same for UMass in the second half. Seniors Diamon Beckford and Trisha Krewson fought to keep Kent State competitive, scoring 15 and 11 points, respectively, but the Minutewomen’s tireless defense kept their opponents off-balance offensively all game.
The Golden Flashes, who forced long shots to help close the increasing deficit, struggled to a 5-of-20 showing from 3-point territory.
As the game clock ticked closer to the final buzzer with Watson still searching for the bucket to put her over the 1,000-point threshold, it became clear that her teammates were not only aware of the potential feat, but actively forcing the ball to her down low for scoring looks.
With the game long in hand and a number of family and friends in the stands, it was hard to blame them.
After senior co-captain Dee Montgomery, who tallied a career-high 11 assists, found Watson with a well-placed bounce pass on the right block for the record-making layup with just over two minutes remaining in regulation, Dawley pulled her star center from the game. Watson exited to cheerful applause from the 355-spectator crowd and hugs from her teammates and coaches.
“(It was) a great day for Jasmine Watson, scoring her thousand points,” Dawley said. “Ironically, through the game I was most impressed with her defense. It’s offense that we’ll end up talking about today, but I thought that was one of her better defensive days.”
Dawley said she wasn’t aware at the end of the game of how close Watson was to notching her thousandth point.
“(Watson) was coming out and there was a timeout called,” she said. “And then the (scorer’s) desk came over and said she needs two points, so we switched who was in and who was out.
“The goal was to keep her in for another couple of sets, and if she gets it, fine, and if not, she’ll have to get it next game.”
Fortunately for the UMass faithful in attendance, Watson made good on her coach’s impromptu roster management and made history in front of the home Mullins Center crowd.
Dawley recognizes that if Minutewomen are to carry Saturday’s momentum into games later in the schedule, the team’s shooters will need to be ready to step up and hit open looks when opponents collapse on Watson like they did against Kent State.
“We’ll have to (hit open shots) for the sake of being able to give Jasmine a little bit of room,” she said. “If Kiara and Tex are shooting that way, and Rashida is a threat in her own right, I think it’s going to be hard for everyone to key on Jasmine Watson as much as they typically do.”
UMass will get its first shot at trying to repeat Saturday’s convincing performance when the team travels to Central Connecticut on Tuesday for another non-conference matchup and its first road game of the young season.
Daniel Malone can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @Daniel_Malone.