UMass women’s basketball resets and reloads, looking to improve on last year’s record with plenty of new talent

By Cam Sibert

(Jessica Picard/Daily Collegian)

The Massachusetts women’s basketball team finished last season with a 9-21 record, which left a sour taste in the mouths of players. Although there were good takeaways from the season, like Hailey Leidel being awarded the Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Year, and now-senior center Maggie Mulligan averaging 13.9 points per game, some changes needed to be made in the offseason for the team to improve.

This year, with only four returning players and a second-year head coach still trying to prove himself, the University of Massachusetts is looking for a fresh start and to have its first winning season since 2006-07.

One returning player for the Minutewomen who will play a big role in their efforts this season is Mulligan, who averaged a double-double last season with 13.9 points and 11.1 rebounds per game. She saw a lot of time on the court with 37 minutes per game, and she finished second in rebounding and third in blocked shots in the A-10.

“Maggie was forced into a leadership role last year. As soon as I took over, I could tell she wanted to be something special. Having some success has helped her and propelled her to have the confidence necessary to lead the team this year,” head coach Tory Verdi said. “We got seven new faces, starting three players who have never played here before, two freshmen and a junior college player who haven’t played in this system.”

Possibly the biggest acquisition for the team this offseason comes in versatile forward Genesis Rivera. Rivera, who stands 5-feet-11 inches, poses matchup problems for opponents with her ability to shoot over and drive past defenders. She is also a member of the Venezuelan Women’s National Team, where she is averaging 16 points per game.

“She’s a scorer,” Leidel said of her teammate. “She can do anything we ask her to do. Immediately she is going to have an impact on offense and on defense.”

“We, as a team, have a lot of goals right now,” Rivera said. “Mainly, to win the A-10 conference so we can get to the NCAA tournament.”

Another name to watch this season is returning sophomore guard Leidel, who racked up 15 points, six rebounds and two assists per game en route to a conference Rookie of the Year award. Her role as a player who can stretch the floor and open up space for teammates to get into the lane is crucial to this UMass team.

Regardless of her individual accomplishments last season, Leidel said, “I want to have individually another great year, but in terms of this year I want to win more. I want to win a championship and whether that means increasing my scoring or decreasing my scoring, I just want us, as a team, to do better than we did last year.”

So far this season, Leidel is proving that she can shoot the rock, dropping six threes against Maine-Fort Kent, and making two threes against Towson. She is showing early on that guards like Bre Hampton-Bey and Paige McCormick need to be looking for her if she’s open on the perimeter.

Guard play will be important for the Minutewomen as they look to rely a lot on those two freshmen. Hampton-Bey, a freshman from Notre Dame Academy in Toledo, Ohio, has started off this year with a couple good games shooting, but is also finding success passing the ball with 13 assists already through two games.

“The team has great chemistry so far, from working hard this summer and getting to know each other. Coach Verdi has done a great job in getting a great group of girls in the system, and all of us are ready to work so we’re just looking forward to the season,” Hampton-Bey said.

The other freshman guard in this new tandem is McCormick from Heuvelton Central High School in New York. McCormick has played 30 minutes in the Minutewomen’s first two contests, and is averaging 14.5 points, with a strong 6.5 rebounds.

This UMass team is one loaded with new talent this winter. For new players, the transition onto the team has been a good one, and they appear to be clicking well. For returning players, it’s a burning desire to win games. Without question, the Minutewomen struggled when playing away last season, going 1-14 in those games. It’s important for these players—who might still be adjusting to one another’s playing styles—to communicate on the court while playing defense.

Their tenacious 2-3 zone defense depends on constant chatter and in-your-face defense that can force turnovers, which turn into easy transition baskets for UMass. So far this season the Minutewomen have forced their first two opponents into 26 and 27 turnovers respectively.
With an abundance of new players and new talent, this team has reset and reloaded, and is ready to make a push at an A-10 title for the first time since 1998.

Cameron Sibert can be reached at [email protected], and followed on Twitter @camsibert.