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George stepping up for Minutewomen

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Lost in the shuffle of a recent six-game losing streak for the Massachusetts women’s basketball teamwas the ascension of junior guard Jessica George into the starting lineup for the Minutewomen.

The losing streak has since ended — the Minutewomen pulled out a 79-75 win over Virginia Commonwealth, Sunday — and George’s success has continued.

George, in her third year playing for UMass (9-10, 1-5 Atlantic 10), has started five of the last six games after starting only five of the Minutewomen’s first 13 games of the season. She settled into the starting lineup at the end of December, just as UMass began conference play.

“I think Jess is probably one of our most improved players coming back from a year ago,” UMass coach Tory Verdi said. “You look at all of our returners and you look at her production, where she was to where she is now, there’s no question about it.”

That increased production is already being reflected in the stat sheet. George is shooting 38 percent from the field this year, compared to just 29 percent last year, and has already exceeded her points total from last year. Through 19 games, her defense and ball control have improved as well, as she has nearly matched her steals numbers from last year and halved her turnovers.

“She’s knocking down 3-point shots for us, she’s running the floor,” Verdi said. “She does a great job, on the defensive side of things, of pressuring the ball. She knows our system, both offensively and defensively, and she gives us some confidence in those areas.”

George attributed her improvement to getting reps and her focus on sharpening her game.

“I just try to stay in the gym as much as possible, try to get as many shots up as possible,” George said. “My coaches hold me accountable, and I hold myself accountable. I just try to work on my own game.”

George has settled into a starting lineup alongside seniors Maggie Mulligan and Leah McDerment, as well as sophomore Hailey Leidel. Despite having seven new players who joined the Minutewomen this offseason, the only new player currently in the starting lineup is freshman Bre Hampton-Bey.

“That group does a great job of executing,” Verdi said of the current lineup. “On both sides of the ball, both offensively and defensively. And I like the guys coming off the bench because it gives us some scoring production from the bench as well.”

The four returners were present for last year’s 11-game slide that marred a once-promising season for the Minutewomen. Despite having the same record through 19 games as that team, George said that the depth of talent on the roster makes another such slide unlikely.

“I would say that this team this year, we have a lot more players who can do everything,” George said. “You have the point guard who can bring up the ball, you have more shooters now, you have more drivers now. So, I feel like it’s an even spread around the team, compared to last year’s team where we had one or two shooters here and there.”

If UMass wins against Davidson on Wednesday, it will top last year’s win total – perhaps escape the specter of last season’s ugly finish. But George said that the Minutewomen are focused on what they can still do down the stretch of this year.

“I feel like we take this win, and we hold it on our backs and say, ‘This win is the win we’ve needed to get the roll going, to keep the train going for wins,’” George said. “We’re not going to let this go right back downhill. We’re using this to keep going higher, higher, higher, and come out with more wins at the end of the season.”

Thomas Haines can be reached at [email protected] or followed on Twitter @thainessports.

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