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UMass women’s basketball looks to youth for bigger roles

After losing 12 of its last 13 games, the Massachusetts women’s basketball team has been forced to try something a little different.

Jeff Bernstein/Collegian

With younger players carrying a bulk of the scoring load over the last few games, UMass (3-17, 1-4 Atlantic 10 Conference) will look to ride the hot hand by giving its youth more time on the floor.

Looking to re-energize her team’s game plan, UMass coach Sharon Dawley is relying on the underclassmen’s sense of fight to rebound from a tough loss.

“I think the younger kids are going in and giving us more fight and that’s what we need right now,” Dawley said. “Even though they might go in and appear to be nervous and maybe make some mistakes, I would take that fight over someone going in and being tentative.”

Two of the younger players who have thrived thanks to extra minutes on the court are redshirt sophomore Millie Niggeling, and freshman guard Jasmine Harris. In her first collegiate start, a 75-61 loss Jan. 23 against Butler, Niggeling contributed a double-double. Harris, meanwhile, led the team with eight points and five rebounds in Sunday’s loss to No. 17 Dayton.

Harris said there’s a direct relationship between chances given to her teammates and the way they perform.

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence,” Harris said. “I think when we have our chance, we do what we need to do with it and we try to prove to the coaching staff that we have what it takes to go out there and be successful.”

Entering a two-game homestand, the Minutewomen, who have a majority of their wins at home, are looking forward to a break from the road.

Admitting that ironically, sometimes the pressure to play at home can work against a team, Dawley said familiar surroundings will lead to a preferred outcome.

“We’re just glad we’re not getting on a bus or plane this afternoon,” Dawley joked. “It’s great to be able to stay home all week and get caught up with everything, but we’re looking at rebounding, coming back (Wednesday) morning, playing well and having the young kids play a lot.”

In the midst of a four-game losing streak, Dawley said each loss elevates a sense of urgency, but the team remains committed to staying focused on the next game.

“Mindset wise, it’s our job, all of us, to stay focused, stay positive and go to the next game,” Dawley said. “That’s where our entire focus is as a staff, each game’s a new opportunity to turn the page. We’ve got to seize the opportunity and that’s why we’re playing the kids that show the most fight.”

With hopes of playing in the A-10 Tournament, Harris said pushing each other and showing resiliency are the best ways for UMass to find a way into the win column.

“We want to turn this season around,” Harris said. “We still want to make the A-10 Tournament and to do that we need to do good in these next two games. As a team you just want to keep pushing each other because we know we can make our goals happen when it counts.”

Dawley promised that in addition to pros on the score sheet, unpublicized x-factors make all the difference.

“What’s maybe not noticeable is the maturity of the younger kids,” Dawley said. “But it will be more noticeable as we go forward.”

Harris said the team’s chemistry and cohesiveness are important dynamics that can’t be seen in the box score.

“Even if somebody goes out there and doesn’t make any shots, we believe in her that in the next game, she’s going to hit every shot,” Harris said. “The confidence that we have in each other as teammates, even with our record – we’re not the team that the record shows and we believe that we’re a better team than we’re showing.”

Peter Cappiello can be reached at pcappiel@student.umass.edu and followed on Twitter @MDC_Cappiello.

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