Despite inconsistency, Minutewomen overcome resilient Iona

UMass has won last nine out of 10 games

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Nina Walat, Daily Collegian

By Thomas Haines, Sports Editor

The Massachusetts women’s basketball team overcame a streaky and sometimes careless performance Saturday afternoon, closing the door on Iona down the stretch for a 65-51 win.

Each time UMass (9-3) built up a lead on Saturday afternoon, Iona (1-8) erased it. The Minutewomen led for 36 of 40 minutes and put together three runs of 10-0 or better, but aggressive defense from the Gaels and a slew of UMass turnovers allowed Iona to get back in the game time and again.

“Teams in the past that I’ve coached here, we wouldn’t come out with the win,” UMass coach Tory Verdi said. “Faced adversity and we continued to fight.”

After a 7-0 run from the Gaels late in the third quarter, senior Hailey Leidel hit her first three of the afternoon out of a timeout, then converted an and-one on the next possession to singlehandedly turn a one-point deficit into a five-point lead.

That proved enough, as the Minutewomen cut down the turnovers down the stretch and iced the game with a 10-0 run in the fourth.

“[Leidel] started knocking down shots, where she missed a couple the first half,” Verdi said. “She had a couple charges in the first half. Her momentum was taken away from her a little bit. But then she knocks down a three, got herself going, and started being really aggressive offensively for us, and she needed to do that. She’s a senior, and she’s senior leadership. We need that from her, especially when things aren’t going our way.”

While it was a rocky effort overall, UMass tightened up in the fourth quarter, particularly on the defensive end. The Minutewomen pulled down 13 rebounds to the Gaels’ two in the fourth, while Iona’s leading scorer, Morgan Rachu, was shut down after scoring 14 points in the first three quarters.

“We face-guarded her and we didn’t let her touch the ball again, forced other people to score,” Verdi said. “So we took her out of the mix, and I thought that changed their momentum after they took the lead.”

The Minutewomen came flying out of the gate with a 10-0 run in the first five minutes, as the defense disrupted Iona and the Gaels whiffed on the few good looks they managed. Around the halfway point of the first quarter, though, Maeve Donnelly came out and the Gaels took advantage by rolling out smaller lineups and playing faster, breaking the Minutewomen’s early pressure.

On the other side, Iona’s press disrupted UMass, and a cold stretch from the floor – nine minutes without a field goal, snapped by Leidel’s jumper with 5:38 left in the second quarter – set the Gaels up for a 14-1 run to retake the lead.

“There were times where we were going too fast and turned the ball over,” Verdi said. “I was telling them, just take a deep breath, relax, and move the ball and attack the gaps. You can’t freak out about the pressure, you have to make them pay. If they have two or three people at the ball, somebody else has to be open, let’s take it advantage of it.”

In the end, poor shooting – just 32 percent, including whiffs on several open threes – was more than enough to sink the Gaels on offense. By contrast, the Minutewomen shot 49 percent from the field. In the absence of second-leading scorer Destiney Philoxy, who was injured in practice, Leidel and Vashnie Perry led the way with 21 and 19 points, respectively.

Junior Sam Breen, playing in her first game with UMass after transferring from Penn State in the fall of 2018, contributed eight points and nine rebounds in 18 minutes of action, while freshman Grace Heeps saw 11 minutes in Philoxy’s absence and chipped in three rebounds.

“It’s good for her to get on the court, but I liked how aggressive she was, going for the offensive boards, second-chance opportunity points, and teams are going to have to double her,” Verdi said. “Iona started doing that, and once you start double-teaming post players, it allows other people to get open, and we’ll take advantage of that.”

The victory marked the sixth straight for UMass and the ninth in 10 games as the Minutewomen head into a nine-day break. UMass will get a chance to continue the streak Dec. 30 at the Mullins Center when it hosts Southern Connecticut State.

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