UMass women’s basketball opens season with win over Holy Cross

By Jamie Cushman

Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian
(Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian)

What a difference a year makes.

The Massachusetts women’s basketball team opened the 2015 season Sunday with a resounding 74-60 victory over Holy Cross, which is a stark contrast to last season’s 63-41 loss to Western Michigan in the opening game.

UMass (1-0) coach Sharon Dawley stressed the value of winning the first game of the season.

“I think it’s huge,” Dawley said. “I think momentum is critical. When you look at last season, there were a couple of games if we had grabbed early, I think we would have gotten a lot more wins down the stretch.”

She added: “This game is about comradery and confidence, and confidence only comes from playing in tight games and coming out ahead in tight games. All these early games are critical for us that if we can grab them, we’ve got to grab them to gain some confidence.”

Leading 53-50 at the end of three quarters, UMass pulled away in the final frame to clinch its first victory of the season.

The Minutewomen led by as much as 15 points in the first quarter and led 20-9 after one frame. But Holy Cross (0-2) outscored UMass 24-8 in the second quarter and took a five-point lead into halftime.

The second half began as a much more back-and-forth affair. In the third quarter, the lead switched hands on six straight possessions before finally ending with UMass pulling ahead by three points.

The Minutewomen rolled in the fourth quarter, outscoring Holy Cross 21-10. Kymber Hill played a huge role in securing the win, chipping in six of her 12 points in the final frame.

“Kymber Hill came in and played really stellar defense,” Dawley said. “Then unexpectedly we also got 10 points from Kymber, which really set us apart at that point.”

The retooled Minutewomen made up for the loss of last year’s leading scorer Kim Pierre-Louis with contributions from two players making their UMass debut – freshman Bria Stallworth and transfer sophomore Alyssa Lawrence.

Stallworth impressed in her collegiate debut on both sides of the ball, tallying 19 points, and six assists while adding in solid defense in 38 minutes of action.

“I don’t think (Stallworth) looked like a true freshman,” Dawley said. “She did a great job distributing and playing defense.”

After sitting out last season following her transfer from San Diego State, Lawrence finally got a chance to play in a game with the Minutewomen, and she made the most of it. Lawrence shot 5-for-11 en route to tallying 10 points, three rebounds and three assists.

“Alyssa was solid for us offensively and defensively,” Dawley said. “She attacked the rim and got a lot of looks for us early.”

The player that stood out the most in the win however, was sophomore and leading returning scorer Cierra Dillard. After finishing second in scoring her freshman season, Dillard showed she was capable of handling an even larger role, leading the team with 21 points in 39 minutes. She was only substituted out of the game for 43 seconds midway through the first quarter.

“Cierra was really on fire getting to the rim and she did a great job setting us up on offense,” Dawley said.

Sunday’s resounding victory was not without some blemishes for the Minutewomen. Both teams exhibited some rust, as one might expect this early into the season, and tallied 12 turnovers each.

The beginning of the game was especially sloppy. UMass turned the ball over seven times in the first quarter, including three in the first 11 minutes coming after forcing a turnover on defense and promptly turning the ball back over themselves on the ensuing possession.

Another aspect of the win the Minutewomen will try to avoid repeating is the reliance on the team’s starters. The starting five played 150 out of a possible 200 minutes, and UMass only saw four points from its bench.

“The bench didn’t get a lot of minutes, that will change,” Dawley said. “We have to make sure we give them more opportunities, but it was a close game, it was a tight game, the starters were playing great, so we went with them.”

The win also marked a milestone for Dawley’s career at UMass. It was her 300th career coaching victory.

“I’m happy that UMass won,” Dawley said. “The 300th, that’s fun, that’s frosting on the cake, but I’m just excited that our girls played well and got a win today.”

Dawley will look for win No. 301 when the Minutewomen play next on Wednesday on the road at Harvard. The Crimson will enter the matchup 0-1 after losing their home opener to Maine 64-53.

Wednesday’s game will tip off at 7 p.m.

Jamie Cushman can be reached at [email protected]