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UMass women’s basketball aims to continue competitive rebuild in 2017

(Jessica Picard/Daily Collegian)

The Massachusetts women’s basketball season is officially underway, and although expectations are higher for this season’s team, the Minutewomen are ultimately preparing for the future.

After a disappointing 2016-17 season where UMass finished 9-21, closing out the year on an 11-game losing streak, the team looks to be more competitive throughout this season.

“It’s on us returners to really set the standard and the tone for the team,” said senior Leah McDerment. “We have to say, ‘this is what we do here, this is the way we play and these are the expectations.’” However, featuring seven new players, including five freshmen, the Minutewomen must set their sights on simultaneously being more competitive, while prepping for the days beyond this year.

“The adversity we went through last season helped build character in our players,” UMass coach Tory Verdi said. “I think what the returners went through last year built some character. They’re the foundation of this program.”

This year, the returners will look to instill that character in the newcomers.

The importance of captains McDerment and Maggie Mulligan goes beyond their play. Establishing a winning atmosphere in their final season, and readying younger players for the years ahead are equally important to what they do on the court.

McDerment, who averaged 38 minutes last season due to the low number of players for UMass as well as injury issues, recognizes that her importance to the team must be consistent on and off the floor.

“We need to instill confidence in our players,” McDerment said. “Every single person is important to this team. It doesn’t matter how many minutes you’re playing, you are important, and you have a role to play here.”

At the end of the day for the Minutewomen, winning isn’t necessarily everything this season. Progressing toward building a winning culture, gaining experience and developing for the future should remain one of the most important goals for the team.

However, to completely rule UMass out would be foolish.

This rebuilding process hasn’t stopped the Minutewomen from bringing their all to the court so far this year. The team has opened to a 2-0 start, topping Maine-Fort Kent 111-46 and Towson 72-49.

Mulligan has high hopes for her final season.

“It’d be ideal for us to win the A-10 [Tournament] and keep on winning from there,” Mulligan said, who has already collected her first double-double of the year in the win versus Maine-Fort Kent.

If Mulligan can help assist players like freshman Alexia Allesch in developing a strong inside game like her own, UMass could maintain its low post threat beyond this season.

Sophomore Hailey Leidel is a bright building block for the Minutewomen, as she is the reigning Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Year. Leidel, along with junior guard Jessica George, are the only returners eligible to play past this season.

Leidel has shown strength on the court early, boasting double digits in the scoring column in each of the games so far. Leidel and George must look toward becoming leaders in addition to great players for the benefit of the Minutewomen team.

There’s no doubt that the young players on the team will have their opportunities to develop on the court this year.

“Having a lot of young, new players gives us a lot of depth, which allows us to substitute and be fresher,” coach Tory Verdi said.

If the newcomers can make the most of these on-court opportunities, in addition to developing off the court, a flourishing future may lie ahead for UMass.

“It’s really crucial and important that we hold them accountable and that we hold them to our high standards,” McDerment said.  “If we’re all on the same page we can really do something special this year.”

Dan McGee can be reached at dmcgee@umass.edu.

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