Massachusetts women’s basketball coach Sharon Dawley has a motto for her club in the New Year and the new Atlantic 10 conference portion of her team’s schedule: “The new season is here and believe in yourself.”
If the Minutewomen’s 62-58 home win over A-1o rival George Washington at the Mullins Center on Saturday is any indication, then it looks like Dawley’s players have already bought into the mantra.
“Obviously, we’re really excited that we are 1-0 (in the conference),” Dawley said. “We put in a good week of practice, and our attitude is that it’s a new season (and) this is a new start for us.
“I think everyone is playing, probably, their best basketball right now.”
Though it looked for a while like it might fall victim to the same type of late game pratfalls that have plagued it throughout the season, UMass (3-13, 1-0 A-10) was able to fight through the frustration of nearly blowing a 15-point lead with only five minutes, nine seconds left to play and step up when the game was on the line.
Freshman guard Nola Henry banked home a left-handed layup in traffic with 13 seconds left in regulation to end the Colonials’ (6-9, 0-1 A-10) rally and put the game out of reach for good.
“I think that bucket is going to do a lot for her,” Dawley said of Henry’s crunch time basket. “To cap off that kind of game with a great play, I think that’s going to help her down the stretch.”
The Minutewomen were paced offensively through much of the game by a pair of players who are only just now getting back to being 100 percent physically: redshirt junior guard Carolann Cloutier and sophomore forward Aisha Rodney.
Cloutier, who has now put together back-to-back impressive shooting performances, finished with a team-high 13 points and four assists while Rodney contributed 10 points and five rebounds, including two crucial offensive boards in a possession that led to a Cloutier 3-point make in the second half.
“Aisha and Carolann are big keys right now,” Dawley said. “(They’re) emerging and playing their best basketball. I think (Aisha’s) confidence is back, and I think she showed that with knocking down some shots.
“It feels great, from our stand point, to have these guys back.”
For Cloutier, who suffered a torn right ACL late last season, the road back to health has been difficult, but the fruits of her labor are proving to be sweet.
“In practice I’ve been shooting the ball well, so my confidence is coming from there,” she said. “And just my speed and being able to do what I used to do at both ends.”
UMass used the superb play of its two recovering role players to string together a pair of extended scoring runs, including a 13-3 stretch late in the first half to give the team its first halftime lead since it led 31-20 at the break on Dec. 8 at Ole Miss.
Also scoring in double-digits for the Minutewomen were sophomore guard Emily Mital (11 points, four rebounds) and senior center Jasmine Watson (10 points, eight rebounds). Freshman forward Rashida Timbilla came close to another double-double for UMass, adding eight points and 11 rebounds in the win.
The Minutewomen next travel to Bronx, N.Y. on Wednesday for another conference matchup with Fordham at 7 p.m.
Daniel Malone can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @Daniel_Malone.