Don’t look now, but the Massachusetts women’s basketball team is riding a two-game winning streak.
Following Wednesday’s upset win over a Rutgers team coached by Vivian Stringer, the Minutewomen battled a cold start against Hartford on Saturday and came out with a 63-59 come-from-behind victory.
For UMass coach Sharon Dawley, winning consecutive games for the first time in two seasons is a nice accomplishment. But the more vital aspect is how the Minutewomen pulled out those two games: in two different ways.
UMass (2-3) held a double-digit lead for the majority of the second half against Rutgers before they had to hold off a furious rally.
On Saturday, the Minutewomen’s offense didn’t find its rhythm until the second half, when they overcame a 12-point deficit and came out of another nail-biter on top.
While the overall circumstances differed in both games, the common denominator that propelled UMass was defense.
“I think it’s great to have won two games in two different ways,” Dawley said. “But in both games, I watched them grow defensively. They’re just playing with a lot of confidence at that end.”
Defense was the team’s main focal point after a rough 0-3 start to the season, which included a Nov. 10 game against Central Michigan when the Minutewomen gave up a team-record 105 points. They’ve given up a combined 122 points in their last two games. Saturday’s game against Hartford (1-3) was a prime example of how the Minutewomen’s defense has grown since the beginning of the season.
While the offense was struggling to find any rhythm in the first half with UMass only shooting 25 percent from the field, the defense limited Hartford to just 38 percent shooting and a six-point intermission lead.
“We just had faith that if it didn’t work out on the offensive end, we get another stop and we’ll be OK,” Dawley said. “Even when we missed easy shots, we were running back on defense.”
Eventually, the UMass offense caught fire in the second half. Led by Kim Pierre-Louis’ 19 points and seven offensive rebounds, the Minutewomen shot 52 percent from the field and outscored the Hawks 38-28 in the final 20 minutes.
Pierre-Louis was one the best players on the floor in Saturday’s win. On Wednesday, it was Rashida Timbilla’s 17 points and 12 rebounds that paved the way for the Minutewomen.
Getting big-time contributions from different players each game has been one of the major reasons UMass has hit its stride
“The most exciting part is having a team where someone different steps up and delivers,” Dawley said. “We can’t be good if there’s not someone different every day.
“We can’t assume one kid can carry the torch..We have to have multiple options.”
Also in double-figures for the Minutewomen on Saturday was senior Kiara Bomben, who scored 12 points, and junior Emily Mital with 10.
The upperclassmen have been leading a group that consists of 10 freshmen and sophomores that are still getting acclimated into a new system.
As the season progresses, Dawley senses that her team is starting to grow on both sides of the ball, which will only get better moving forward.
“With a young team we have growing pains, there was a lot of chemistry that we had to get going,” she said. “I think we’re starting to solidify the defensive end and the offense will start to get better.”
It’s still early in the season, but if the Minutewomen can get their team chemistry clicking, they’ll find even more ways to win games.
Joey Saade can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @Jsaade1225.