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Dominant defensive performance leads UMass women’s basketball past North Dakota State in home opener

After opening the Tory Verdi era with a loss against Buffalo Friday, the Massachusetts women’s basketball team got its first win of the season Monday night in a 70-58 victory over North Dakota State at Mullins Center.

The Bison (1-1) put up a strong third quarter to make up for being outshot in the first quarter, after UMass (1-1) jumped out to an early 24-7 lead. The Bison opened up the scoring at the start of the second half with a 3-pointer from Taylor Thunstedt, who would sink two more in the quarter.

But with NDSU getting hot and finding rhythm, Verdi had the Minutewomen instill a 2-2-1 press formation to slow down and tire out the Bison. The strategy worked, forcing a couple of turnovers and a shot-clock violation.

According to Verdi, UMass’ first-quarter performance and lock-down defense was the key aspect that led them to victory.

“Our defense creates offense,” Verdi said after his first win with the UMass program. “We’re able to get deflections, steals and then we can push the offense and score in transition.”

The Minutewomen forced 18 turnovers, showing a prominent transition game by outscoring NDSU 14-2 in fast-break points.

Despite being outshot in the second and third quarters, UMass held the Bison to just six points in the final quarter of play to seal the victory.

UMass dominated play in the paint throughout the entire game, outscoring NDSU 46-14. The Minutewomen  players consistently took their defenders to the basket and forced them to foul, often resulting in potential three-point plays.

“Going into the game we knew we wanted to attack the basket,” Verdi said. “I felt against Buffalo we shot a lot of [jump shots], getting to the rim is obviously a high percentage shot and that’s what we wanted to do tonight.”

Freshman Hailey Leidel was the most versatile player on the court, accumulating a season-high 24 points and nine rebounds. She led the team in steals with five and added six assists on the night.

With UMass’ lead down to just six points, Leidel buried a fate-sealing 3-pointer which sparked a 9-0 run for the Minutewomen with six minutes, 59 seconds in the final quarter, her only 3 of the game. After that shot, the Bison didn’t come within single digits for the rest of the game.

“She’s been very consistent for us and she needs to be,” Verdi said. “She filled up the stat sheet tonight, so she did a really great job for us and hopefully that continues.”

Leidel, who was awarded Atlantic 10 rookie of the week, acknowledged that in their game against Buffalo, UMass forced a lot of turnovers but failed to convert points off of them. Heading into Monday, she knew her team had to capitalize.

“Everyone’s been working really hard,” Leidel said. “We’ve faced a lot of adversity but we’re coming together and having a win really is just the cherry on top.”

Mollie Walker can be reached at molliewalker@umass.edu and followed on Twitter at MWalker2019.

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