Now or Never: UMass women’s basketball readies for key A-10 contest against Rhode Island Wednesday

By Adam Aucoin

(Bria Stallworth attempts to shoot a layup over URI guards.   Shannon Broderick/ Daily Collegian)
(Bria Stallworth attempts to shoot a layup over URI guards.
Shannon Broderick/ Daily Collegian)

Back on Feb. 10, when the Massachusetts women’s basketball team was coming off its 11th straight loss, it looked like the 2015-16 season would be a season of disappointment.

What a difference two weeks makes.

UMass (9-17, 3-11 Atlantic 10) finally broke through beating the heavily favored St. Bonaventure Feb. 13 and haven’t looked back since.

Now riding a three-game winning streak, the Minutewomen will look to continue their hot play as they take on Rhode Island Wednesday at the Ryan Center.

URI (11-15, 5-9 A-10) won the previous matchup between the two teams coming out with an 80-79 win on Jan. 27 at the Mullins Center.

The Rams come into Wednesday’s game struggling mightily. After starting off A-10 play with a promising 5-4 record, they have dropped their last five games.

Despite its recent struggles, URI does boast one of the stronger defenses in the conference, only giving up 60.7 points per game, which ranks fifth in the A-10. On top of this, it leads the conference in steals per game (8.9).

Sophomore guard Cierra Dillard has been UMass’ most consistent scorer throughout the season, averaging 14.6 ppg. She is cognizant of the Rams’ strong defense, but is confident in the Minutewomen’s offense come Wednesday.

“We just have to keep doing what we’ve been doing because it has worked for us recently,” Dillard said. “When we grab rebounds and get on the break, we are tough to defend. We know they are tough on defense though, so we’ve worked a lot on our offensive sets and how to attack them.”

The URI offense doesn’t quite measure up to the profile of its defense, but it does include one of the conference’s top scorers in Charise Wilson. The sophomore guard averages 16.8 ppg, which is good for second in the conference after her freshman season where she was named A-10 Rookie of the Year.

UMass coach Sharon Dawley understands the challenge it is up for defending Wilson.

“She’s going to score. You’re not going to hold someone of her talent scoreless,” Dawley said.

Dawley added: “We just don’t want her to get more than her average. If we can keep everyone else out of double figures and keep her production at bay, our chances of winning will be pretty good.”

The post play for the Minutewomen will be key in Wednesday’s matchup. After struggling to produce early in the season, the group has come on strong as of late.

Rashida Timbilla remains a constant for UMass in the post, leading the team with 9.3 rebounds per game while Alyssa Lawrence has been a spark plug off the bench, most recently scoring 13 points in 18 minutes in the Minutewomen’s game against Davidson Sunday. Possibly the most surprising of the bunch has been the play of forward Kymber Hill, who has improved significantly with added playing time. The junior has scored double-digits in four out of the last six games.

Now or never

Despite the hot streak that UMass has been on, it has done little to change its spot in the conference standings. The Minutewomen currently rank 13th out of 14 teams in the A-10, two games back of three teams (Richmond, URI and Davidson) that have 5-9 A-10 records.

If the A-10 tournament were to start today, the Minutewomen would be playing in one of the two play-in games next Wednesday in Richmond, Virginia. If they want to avoid playing in those games, they will need to win both of their last two games, and get a bunch of help from the teams above them.

Dawley and Dillard feel like the team is focused on making the most of the last two games.

“We’re excited about how we’re playing and everyone is having fun,” Dawley said. “They don’t want the season to end, so we are going to play really hard to make sure it doesn’t end any time soon.”

“It’s important to keep momentum on our side going into the A-10 tournament,” Dillard added. “These next few games will be really important for us because they can bump us up a few notches, so we’re going to do whatever we can to win.”

Tip off is set for 7 p.m. in Kingston, R.I.

Adam Aucoin can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @aaucoin34.