Minutewomen falter in Atlantic 10

By Eli Rosenswaike, Collegian Staff

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(Eds. Note: The Minutewomen played three games since this article went to press. Check tomorrow’s Collegian for coverage of UMass’ games against La Salle, Saint Louis and Charlotte.)

While the rest of the student body was getting reacquainted with old friends from home, the Massachusetts women’s basketball team (10-8, 0-3 Atlantic 10) dropped a number of crucial games to put themselves in a difficult position.

League play hasn’t been kind to the Minutewomen in the early going, as they find themselves tied for last in the conference. They’ve fallen in six of their last seven games, including all three games within the A-10.

Despite the rough beginning to conference play, UMass coach Marnie Dacko remains optimistic that there is plenty of time remaining to steer the team in the right direction.

“I absolutely think there is enough time to battle back,” she said. “There are enough teams that can get upset, but we have to take care of UMass. We just need to focus on our ability to prepare ourselves for practice and for games, and we have to stay positive.”

Further adding to the disappointment has been the manner in which the Maroon and White has lost some of its recent contests. Especially the defeats they took in their first two conference tilts against Rhode Island (4-13, 2-1 A-10) and Richmond (8-10, 2-1 A-10).

The matchup against Rhode Island began strangely, with the Rams being assessed a technical foul for failing to hand in their starting lineup in time. Junior forward Kate Mills sank two free throws to take a 2-0 lead before the ball tipped off. The rest of the game proceeded to be just as wild.

The Minutewomen fought back from 24 turnovers and a seven-point deficit with just five minutes remaining to force an extra session. Senior forward Tamara Tatham – who became just the 15th player in UMass women’s basketball history to record 1,000 career points – sank two crucial free throws in the final minute to help extend the game.

In the overtime, freshman point guard Kim Benton hit a big three-pointer with just 17 seconds left to tie the game at 69 apiece, and a second overtime was looking like a distinct possibility.

But on the ensuing possession for Rhode Island, Benton was called for a foul with under three seconds left on the game clock, and URI won the game 71-69 with two free throws by Safi Mojidi.

Tatham’s career accomplishment was not enough to solace the Minutewomen, who were upset with the officials for their whistle on Benton at the end.

“I think there were some controversial calls at the end,” Dacko said. “Certainly I thought it should have been a double-overtime game. But nevertheless, we got ourselves into a position where we dug ourselves into a hole.”

UMass fell 46-40 just three days later in another frustrating game, this time against the Richmond Spiders. The Minutewomen struggled mightily on offense, committing nine more turnovers (27) than baskets made (18). Even a 14-2 run in the second half wasn’t enough to overcome the carelessness with the basketball.

It was a struggle for both teams all night, with each squad having a scoring drought lasting in the neighborhood of seven minutes. At one point in the middle of the second half, UMass was down 28-26, and had already committed 23 turnovers. Despite committing 20 turnovers of its own, Richmond capitalized more on its opportunities, scoring 10 more points off turnovers than its counterparts.

Lacking any sort of momentum, the Minutewomen lost their fourth straight game a few days later against the No. 14 George Washington Colonials (14-2, 3-0 A-10). UMass shot terribly from everywhere on the floor, including a mere 2-for-16 from behind the arc. Benton finished 0-for-7 from three-point land, and 0-for-9 overall.

The Maroon and White once again reached the 20-turnover threshold, and managed to shoot just 34.5 percent from the field. A 21-7 George Washington run in the second half sealed the 61-48 victory for the Colonials.

The three defeats in one week – within the conference – will test the mental strength of the team, but Dacko remains upbeat that the team will be better to finish the season.

“I’m pleased right now with our inside game and I’m pleased with our defense,” she said. “I think our defense has been playing extremely well. We held GW to 61 points and we kept Richmond to just 46, we should be winning ballgames.

“I think it takes the wind out of your sails a bit,” she continued. “I think having six games on the road in 12 days has been grueling for our kids. Even though they were on break [from school] there’s really no time to have your brain not to think about basketball. We just need to be prepared mentally moving forward.”

Before league play commenced, the Minutewomen finished out their non-conference schedule with five games over winter break. They finished those games with a 2-3 record, including a wild win over Eastern Michigan (8-7) and a blow-out triumph over Holy Cross (6-12). UMass dropped games against Delaware (14-2), Yale (8-7) and Boston College (10-7).

After classes ended, the Minutewomen took to the court in an eventful game against Eastern Michigan. UMass almost let a 15-point halftime lead slip away, but managed to hold on for an 83-80 victory, in a game where nobody could miss from the outside.

UMass shot a blistering 67 percent in the first half, including 6-for-7 from beyond the arc. The Eagles followed suit by connecting on nine second-half triples to give the Minutewomen a serious scare. Eastern Michigan’s Alyssa Pittman had a flair for the dramatic in the second half – almost single-handedly bringing her team back – but her 27 points weren’t enough, as her 3-point attempt at the buzzer just missed.

Keeping with the latest trend of losing close games, UMass fell to BC by six and to Delaware by just a single point in their next two contests.

It was a close game throughout against the Blue Hens, with the Maroon and White holding its biggest lead of the game (six points) with four and a half minutes to play. Delaware went on a quick run to take a late two-point lead, but Benton hit a crucial three-pointer with 30 seconds to play to give UMass a brief lead, 62-61.

It was not to be in the end, as Chrissy Fisher connected on a game-winner with 14 seconds remaining to give the Blue Hens the victory. The Minutewomen had two chances to win, but they threw the ball away after the basket by Fisher and then missed a desperation half-court shot after a missed one-and-one by Delaware. The loss snapped a 10-game home winning-streak for the Minutewomen.

UMass enjoyed a two-week layoff before its next game against Boston College. The balanced attack from the Eagles – including big games from Kathrin Ress and Elisabeth Egnell – proved to be enough as they went on to take the game 70-64.

The Minutewomen had four players in double figures and just 11 turnovers, but shot just 3-for-15 from behind the 3-point line and were out-rebounded by 15. The superb shooting by the Eagles – 55 percent from the floor – was simply too much to overcome.

It was a see-saw battle throughout, featuring 12 ties and 12 lead changes, but the Minutewomen squandered their two-point lead by failing to score in the final few minutes, and BC promptly reeled off eight straight points. UMass committed just one turnover in the entire second half, but it came at the wrong time, leaving the Minutewomen with no chance at the end. The six-point win marked the largest lead by either team in the game.

The Maroon and White found itself back in the win column after trumping the Crusaders of Holy Cross, 77-46. The 31-point win marked the largest victory for UMass since 2001 when it beat St. Bonaventure by the same margin.

Junior Whitney McDonald notched a career-high 14 points and Benton knocked down three consecutive 3-pointers to blow the game wide open in the first half. UMass remained in cruise control the rest of the way, and four players enjoyed
double-figure efforts.

Holy Cross attempted to fight its way back by launching up countless long-range shots, but it couldn’t find the net, missing on all but one of its 16 attempts. UMass never trailed in the game.

Dacko’s bunch ended non-conference play on a sour note, dropping a 70-60 decision to Yale. Although UMass cut the lead down to just two in the closing minutes, it was Yale’s game from the get-go as it led for the entire contest.

Tatham’s monster effort went for not, thanks to the 22 UMass turnovers, 10-for-20 from the free-throw line and its failure to hit a single shot from the outside. Tatham finished with a career-high 24 points in addition to her 10 rebounds.

UMass began the season scorching hot – winning nine of its first 11 – but the season has begun spiraling in the opposite direction with four straight defeats. The Minutewomen need to get back to what they were doing earlier in the season if they want to claw their way back up the conference standings.

“We’re just not in sync with each other right now,” Dacko said. “In the beginning 10 games we moved the ball so well and that’s why we started off winning games. Now were just pressing a bit, and playing a little tight.

“We’re not reinventing the wheel,” she added. “We have to stay with what got us those wins. We need to make sure we’re staying in the offense and staying on the same page defensively. It’s the little things that escalate and that can turn our wins into losses.”

With the recent losing skid creating a bump in the road, it’s important for the Minutewomen not to lose focus and to keep their heads up. It’s something that their coach is confident they will do.

“I think they’re down, but I don’t think they’re discouraged,” Dacko said. “They want it so bad, and I think they believe that they’re capable of winning games. They’re staying together and we need to come together as a group.”

One thing’s for sure, they’re going to need to do just that to climb up the A-10 standings.