Jasmine Watson returning at right time

By Michael Wood

Conference play is just beginning in the Atlantic 10, and for the Massachusetts women’s basketball team, it may mean the start of a whole new season.

After beginning the season 0-6, the Minutewomen have steadily improved and have now won four of their last six games. If these recent games are any indication of how the team will play for the rest of the season, they look poised to compete after a slow start to the campaign.

UMass is hardly a favorite right now to make the tournament, given its current record, but now that A-10 play has begun, some of the woes that plagued the squad early on can be forgotten with a few early victories. A bonus to playing a tough non-conference schedule is that once A-10 play comes, the team should be ready to learn from its early mistakes and turn things around at the end of the year. Dawley remains encouraged by the play of her team and says that she believes in her players, and that they believe in themselves.

“The good thing about where we are right now is that there’s no pressure on us,” UMass head coach Sharon Dawley said. “We’re going to come out of the gates, I think, and play very, very well.”

The Minutewomen have several factors working in their favor at this point in the year. For starters, Jasmine Watson, last season’s Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Year, has returned to the court after battling an injury for much of the first half of the season. No team in the conference will be gaining such a dominant inside presence this late in the season, and that bodes well for UMass, given its preference for outside shooting. The addition of Watson should open up the lane more often and allow the Minutewomen to spread out their game and score more points.

“We can’t go into someone else’s gym and just shoot [three-pointers],” Dawley said. “We have to go inside, get warm down there, and it’s key to get a layup and get that monkey off your back so we can go back to our perimeter play.”

With the addition of Watson to the lineup, post-play will be critical for the Maroon and White down the stretch. If they hope to compete against the likes of Xavier or Duquesne, the team must convert post opportunities into points early and often. Watson will be instrumental to this plan, as will sophomore forward Shakia Robinson, who has already established herself as more than just a fill-in for Watson. Robinson played only 139 minutes last year and scored just 18 points. She passed those totals early on this year when the injury to Watson allowed her more playing time and a chance to step-up her game.

Robinson helped carry the team and provided nearly all of UMass’ inside scoring efforts early on in the season, and with Watson back on the court, the duo could cause problems for opponents down the stretch.

Three Minutewomen rank among the conference’s best in a few different statistical categories, meaning that there is a core group of players who provide a base for offensive growth. Robinson is seventh in field goal percentage and 12th in rebounding, 14th in offensive rebounds and 14th in defensive rebounds. Senior Megan Zullo is 11th in scoring and 14th in field goal percentage and also ranks highly in assists. Cerie Mosgrove ranks sixth in free throw percentage, sixth in three-point percentage, ninth in three-point shots-per-game and 19th in scoring.

Yet, despite some offensive success, Dawley has made it clear that her team isn’t making any excuses, and that its best work still needs to come in the near future.

“We’ll need to keep working on what we’re working on,” Dawley said. “[Our] press offense, a couple of things defensively that we want to change up on, get better on offense, make our free throws and get better at boxing out. Some things need to improve.”

If the Minutewomen can continue the pace they are currently on and improve in those essential areas of play, they certainly will have more than an outside chance at making the A-10 tournament at the end of the regular season.

Michael Wood can be reached at [email protected]