Maeve Donnelly brings height to a shallow UMass frontcourt

6-foot-5-inch freshman brings post play and rim protection to a smaller team

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Maeve Donnelly brings height to a shallow UMass frontcourt

Mehroz Kapadia/Daily Collegian

Mehroz Kapadia/Daily Collegian

Mehroz Kapadia/Daily Collegian

Mehroz Kapadia/Daily Collegian

By Michael Townsend, Collegian Staff

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The Massachusetts women’s basketball team has struggled with its frontcourt in recent years, but 6-foot-5-inch freshman Maeve Donnelly may be able to change that.

Donnelly, a dominant low post player in high school, averaged a double-double her junior year with 11.6 points, 10.1 rebounds and 5.3 blocks per game as she helped Susquehanna Valley High School become New York Class B state champions. Following the season, Donnelly was recognized as part of the all-state Class B first team.

“My recruiting was a really long process compared to some of my other teammates,” Donnelly said. “It was really frustrating for me because I felt like I couldn’t find a place that felt like home and I could not just be an athlete but have a real college experience, too. When I came here, it was such a different feeling than all of the other campuses I’ve been on. The coaches make it feel so much like home, a second family, and they didn’t change from my recruiting until when they were actually coaching me.”

Donnelly’s impact in the paint is big news for a UMass team that has struggled down low in recent years. Although a number of players with Donnelly’s height have shuffled in and out of the Minutewomen roster over the past few years, the last UMass player to combine comparable size to Donnelly with effectiveness was the 6-foot 3-inch Jasmine Watson, who graduated in 2013.

Although UMass has seen plenty of talent in other areas recently, such as wing player Hailey Leidel and guard Destiney Philoxy, having someone who is can take the pressure off perimeter defenders and shooters should positively impact the confidence of the entire team.

“I was really excited to have the opportunity to come in and make an impact right away as a freshman, because I felt like that was going to be a really fun opportunity for me to not only learn and grow with my teammates off the court, but on the court as well,” Donnelly said.

Donnelly’s length alone causes problems for any opponent on offense or defense, and that lengthis compounded by the fact that she possesses both the finesse to succeed on offense and the shot-blocking ability to succeed on defense. Her defensive impact was immediately noticeable in her first exhibition game of 2019, and although it may be a tall order for Donnelly to average seven blocks per game on the collegiate level, her imposing presence forces shooters into inaccurate shots down low.

“I definitely think that I bring that [rim protecting] component to the team,” Donnelly said. “Communication down low [as well]; they’ve been working really hard with me to always be talking. I’m a freshman, I should be nervous, but still always be talking, let them know what’s going on behind them.”

Heading into the year, Donnelly faced an uphill battle to make an early impact, as UMass runs a very different style of defense than Donnelly’s high school. UMass’ fast perimeter players and the general discomfort of shooters around Donnelly afford her the opportunity to make an impact by just spending time near the rim, without as much need for her defense.

“We work on defense a lot in practice,” Donnelly said. “We do defense for at least half the practice, and that’s been really nice because coming in, it was a much different style of defense than I was used to. It was kind of a hard transition for me, but after we worked day after day on it and my teammates helped me through, it makes a lot more sense now and I feel a lot more confident doing it.”

Nina Walat/Daily Collegian

Although Donnelly believes she can make an immediate impact, she recognizes that doing so on the collegiate level is easier said than done. Dominating in high school may have come easy for Donnelly when her competition was always smaller and weaker than her, but in college, that isn’t always the case.

In addition to facing more players her own size than she has likely ever faced before, even the smaller players Donnelly will face are more experienced and talented than her high school competition and will challenge Donnelly more than she is used to with their skill.

“Everyone’s fast,” Donnelly said. “No one’s slow anymore, everyone can shoot, so it’s kind of like you thought you were good in high school, but you’re playing against different versions of yourself.”

Even with all the recognition Donnelly has received for being a good basketball player and her desire to make an immediate impact on a college program, no longer being the best player on the court can be an intimidating prospect for any freshman. For Donnelly, this has at times impacted her confidence.

“The start of the season was definitely really rough for me,” Donnelly said. “I was so nervous, and it was just kind of a shell-shock for me coming in from my high school season to this. Every day was a little bit better for me, and now I’ll have a bad day here and there, but then my teammates are there to pick me up, and it’s just a lot more confidence than I used to have.”

In Donnelly’s regular season debut against Merrimack, her initial lack of confidence was on display. In the game, Donnelly snagged seven boards, but points were hard to come by and she was only able to connect on two of her eight shots for five points. Although Donnelly was perfect on free throws on a night where UMass barely shot over 50 percent from the line, her struggles led to only 20 minutes on a night UMass gave up 79 points to Merrimack.

“I was really upset after the [Merrimack] game,” Donnelly said. “But then I came in the next day, I talked to my teammates. Everything has been going so well for us that I think we needed a punch in the face to wake us up and make us hungry. I feel like we weren’t as hungry as we needed to be, we weren’t as tough.”

Conferring with her teammates proved to be extremely helpful for Donnelly. After addressing her struggles, Donnelly returned against Providence to be one of the Minutewomen’s stronger performers in a tough loss, recording a team-high seven rebounds and 11 points on 4-of-6 shooting. With her teammates able to help boost Donnelly’s efficiency between games, Donnelly feels that the support her teammates have shown her is one of the most helpful aspects of playing for the Minutewomen.

“They’ve just been there for me,” Donnelly said. “When I have a bad day, they pick me up. They’re like, ‘We know it’s hard, we’ve been there, but you have to keep pushing because we need you to be here.’ That feels so nice because it’s like everyone cares about you, it’s not just like, ‘Oh, you’re having a bad game, go sit out.’ They want you to be in, get yourself together, get back in the game.”

In addition to her teammates, Donnelly also credits UMass coach Tory Verdi with helping her adjust to a new, more difficult game on the college level. Verdi, who is known for his high expectations of his players, has established a tone that although he will demand a lot from his team, he will still be there for them when his players are having a difficult time. With Donnelly under a lot of pressure as a freshman with lots expected from her, Verdi’s approach has been extremely beneficial.

“He’s been amazing,” Donnelly said. “He’s been like, ‘If you ever need anything, please let me know,’ which is really nice because I know a lot of my friends don’t feel confident enough to come to the coach if they actually need something. I feel perfectly fine walking into his office and asking how his day is and stuff like that.”

Whether Donnelly will be able to change the fortunes of the UMass frontcourt remains to be seen. Regardless of what happens, one thing is clear: Donnelly has massive potential with her size and ability, and her performance against Providence in her second college game gave a glimpse of what she might do.

Michael Townsend can be reached at [email protected]