Cierra Dillard emerging as a star for UMass women’s basketball

By Frank Corona

(Judith Gibson-Okunieff/Daily Collegian)
(Judith Gibson-Okunieff/Daily Collegian)

While students returned home for winter break, the Massachusetts women’s basketball team solidified that it isn’t the same team the school is used to seeing.

The Minutewomen (8-9, 2-3 Atlantic 10) notched their eighth win of the season Thursday night, beating La Salle 71-68 at the Mullins Center.

While it may not seem like much of a milestone, the eighth victory surpassed the accumulated wins of their previous two season combined, and matched the total number of wins from UMass’ 2011-12 campaign. Keep in mind, the Minutewomen still have nearly half their schedule left to play.

Not bad for a team previously pegged to finish dead last within the conference.

“I think in terms of the mixture of talent this is the best group we’ve had in a while,” coach Sharon Dawley said. “We’re having fun which wasn’t always the case and this year I think it shows”.

So what’s been the X-factor?

Although a lot is going right   for UMass – including, but not limited to, its defensive play keeping them in close games and the consistency of veterans Kim Pierre-Louis and Rashida Timbilla – much of the buzz surrounding the team is due to their younger players; most notably freshman Cierra Dillard.

“When I heard [Dillard] committed I was ecstatic because I knew the type of player she was and I knew that she could make a difference right away,” Dawley said. “I think my favorite thing about her is that she just loves to play basketball and when it comes to crunch time you just see her out there having fun and that’s really great to see.”

Dillard collected some of her first collegiate hardware over the winter recess. She was recognized as the Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Week twice in the span of less than a month for the weeks of Dec. 15 and Jan. 12, and was named UMass Co-Athlete of the Week along with men’s basketball player Maxie Esho on Dec. 16th

The freshman earned these awards by breaking her own career records in the process.

She set career highs in both points (21) and rebounds (six) during a Dec. 14 victory over Holy Cross, a career high in steals (four) despite a loss to St. Bonaventure on Jan. 3 and surpassed her previous scoring best with 23 points during a loss to St. Louis on Jan.7.

Dillard has been a catalyst for the Minutewomen offense, and her ability to pick her spots while opposing teams focus primarily on Pierre-Louis is a large reason for the team’s success.

“The upper classman and the coaching staff have been really great at helping us adjust,” Dillard said. “It’s been a great transition and we have a lot of success due to our coaching staff and our teammates with all of our chemistry.”

Dawley is also quick to praise her star freshman.

“I like the way we played, the intensity we had,” Dawley said after the Holy Cross game. “Cierra Dillard, a freshman, dropping 21 (points) and six (rebounds) with four assists was also phenomenal today.”

As well as Dillard has been playing, there seems to be a special connection with her and the team’s senior leader.  During the Holy Cross game, both Dillard and Pierre-Louis posted career highs to combine for 48 of the team’s 72 points. The two were once again in sync against St. Louis as they combined for 49 points off of an efficient shooting night in which they for a field goal percentage of 59.4 percent.

“I feel that we realized in the beginning of the season that we had chemistry even playing pickup and as the season went on my teammates allowed for me to get comfortable on the floor and they opened up my eyes,” said Dillard. “[…] as long as the post players and our guards are on the same page, which they are, it opens up our game.”

Dillard isn’t the only young Minutewoman shining for the team, as was evident in the game against St. Bonaventure. Dillard and fellow freshmen Leah McDerment, Maggie Mulligan and Ciara Rosten combined for 28 points, including a career-high scoring night for McDerment, who notched 10 points.

Despite the eventual loss, McDerment and Lillard combined for seven points in a critical 9-2 run for UMass that brought the game to within three.

A week later, the Minutewomen notched an 18-point win on the road against St. Joseph’s, a game that once again showcased the talented youth on this squad.

Dillard had an impressive stat line against the Hawks that included 18 points, four assists, four rebounds and two steals. McDerment added six points, all from the charity stripe.

“It’s been a great flow for the last few months, me and all the freshmen are really enjoying it getting playing time,” Dillard said. “It’s a privilege as a freshman just trying to help make a statement on the floor and help our upperclassman as much as we can.”

While Dawley was keen on this year’s youth from the get-go, the underclassman have quickly become an integral part of this team’s success and are helping UMass raise its overall play.

“Our future looks bright and we’re buying into what our coaching staff says and shows us and I believe that as the years go on we’ll have a great program,” Dillard said. “I’m so unbelievably happy and excited to continue with the success of this program.”

Frank Corona can be reached at [email protected]