The Massachusetts women’s basketball season continues to be defined by hustle.
It has been a focal point of Tory Verdi’s fourth season as head coach, as his team is off to the program’s best start in over a decade following Sunday’s victory over Siena.
After UMass (8-3) earned a 74-48 win over Hartford last month, Verdi highlighted a play made by junior guard Bre Hampton-Bey during the fourth quarter when the game was well out of reach. After a turnover, Hampton-Bey raced down the length of the court and back-tapped the ball, preventing it from going out of bounds and saving the possession.
It didn’t directly lead to a UMass victory that day, but against Siena on Sunday, those sorts of plays made the difference.
“Those are very important,” Hampton-Bey said. “We always talk about taking charges, doing the extra play, sprinting back, or even if you turn the ball over, try to at least back-tap it, that’ll get us points. It’ll add up in the end. That’s what we saw here tonight.”
One of those little plays essentially clinched the win for the Minutewomen. With the clock winding down near the one-minute mark of the fourth, Siena had the ball trying to cut into a 58-53 lead. Rayshel Brown attempted to cut to the hole for a layup, but Destiney Philoxy got set and took the charge, preventing a near-certain score.
Vashnie Perry knocked down the two free throws, extending the lead to seven, and the game was over.
“It’s like the difference between winning and losing,” said Hailey Leidel, UMass’ leading scorer, “because they can maybe make those two points, then maybe get a steal off of something, or miss the layup and get a kickout three, it just shifts everything. The little defensive plays, the rebounds, the charges and stuff, it all makes the whole game.”
A few moments later, Perry found herself back at the free throw line, this time up by six with just 11 seconds remaining. The game was likely in the bag, but making one free throw would have made it a three-possession game and eliminated any chance Siena had for a miracle comeback.
Perry missed both. On the second miss, however, it was the 5-foot 7-inch Philoxy who went up to secure the offensive rebound. She passed it to Hailey Leidel, who dribbled out the clock on the 61-55 win.
“[Philoxy] always is like a little energizer bunny for us,” Leidel said. “On defense she is always in the passing lanes and talking and rotating. Then she always pushes the ball on offense for us and just kind of always gets us going. So, she’s just a huge help in terms of getting the energy and momentum going for us.”
Like Philoxy, Hampton-Bey is also known for playing with a high motor. In the first quarter of Sunday’s game, neither the Minutewomen nor Saints could get much going offensively.
Late in the quarter, Siena picked up a lose ball and looked to have an easy layup at the other way. Like she did against Hartford, Hampton-Bey never gave up on it, hustling down the court to contest the shot, which fell hard off the glass.
“Defense is my – what do you say? My bread-and-butter, I guess,” Hampton-Bey said. “That’s what I love to do, because when offense isn’t going for me, I know that I’ve got defense. That’s going to get me to be and create offense.”
As the first person off the bench for UMass, she prides herself on playing with a spark, particularly defensively. On Sunday, the guard from Toledo, Ohio had three of the Minutewomen’s 12 steals.
“Her energy and defensive energy really help us out,” Verdi said. “The fact that she picked someone’s pocket here today and got a layup off it, those are the little things that she does for us. But that energy becomes infectious and she becomes a catalyst for us.”
Despite just playing with just seven regulars, UMass has won eight of its last nine thanks in large part to that high-energy play. The Minutewomen will have a chance to extend that mark on Saturday against Iona.
Tim Sorota can be reached by email at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @TimSorota.