Minutewomen hitting their stride after first month

3-point turnaround, improvements down low keying strong stretch

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Minutewomen hitting their stride after first month

Nina Walat/Daily Collegian

Nina Walat/Daily Collegian

Nina Walat/Daily Collegian

Nina Walat/Daily Collegian

By Thomas Haines, Sports Editor

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Winners of four out of the last five, the Massachusetts women’s basketball team seems to have turned a corner.

UMass (4-3) lost its first two games but came back with a series of dominant wins, most recently an 83-49 beatdown of Vermont. The one loss in that stretch came last week against a strong St. John’s team, when two slow stretches sank the Minutewomen.

“We’ve taken a step in the right direction,” coach Tory Verdi said. “We’re playing at the level we’re capable of playing, and to go up to Vermont and do what we did against them, it was a major, major leap for us. Not an easy place to play, team that shoots the three at a high percentage, and for us to go up there and dismantle them was a lot of fun to watch.”

For UMass, the games against St. John’s and Vermont were telling. While the win over Vermont was UMass’ third by 25 points or more, the loss to a good St. John’s team showed growing pains. The Minutewomen played a solid game but got shredded in transition, as the Red Storm’s speed led to 23 fast break points.

Cold stretches at the start of the game and coming out of halftime put UMass behind, and the Minutewomen hung around but couldn’t mount a comeback.

“I think we found our identity a little bit in both the games,” junior Paige McCormick said. “Obviously St. John’s wasn’t the outcome we wanted, but we fought hard to come back, because we were down a lot. I think coach was happy with both games.”

The transformation of the Minutewomen has started with 3-point shooting. UMass started the season ice-cold beyond the arc, hitting just 16 3-pointers in the first three games for a 24.6 clip. Since then, the Minutewomen have hit 43.8 percent from deep, including a 17-for-32 game against Hartford.

With 3-pointers falling, the offense has opened up. While so much of what UMass does on offense goes back to Destiney Philoxy and Bre Hampton-Bey driving into the paint, their job becomes easier with Hailey Leidel and McCormick sinking shots from deep.

On the defensive end, it’s been in the paint that the Minutewomen have seen the most growth.

“I thought Maeve [Donnelly] and Angelique [Ngalakulondi] did a great job for us anchoring our defense,” Verdi said. “So both those guys altered a lot of shots, they blocked shots, and they rebound the basketball. So when we stop teams from scoring and they’re one and done, it gives us the opportunity to get out and run offensively.”

Donnelly and Ngalakulondi, both freshmen, address a major weakness for the Minutewomen, who struggled mightily down low last year. Ngalakulondi’s defense off the bench has been strong all year, while Donnelly has recovered from a shaky start to the season and settled in as the starting center for UMass.

“People are scared,” Philoxy said. “People are scared to attack the basket. So just by Maeve being able to help us when guards beat us – we call it help the helper. Our guards beat us, she’s down there ready. She’s blocking, rebounding, and she’s scaring whoever’s guarding her. Just by her doing that, it helps us automatically.”

Next up for the Minutewomen is New Hampshire on Thursday, with the Wildcats coming in at 2-5, including a 10-point loss to Brown.

“We’re playing with a lot of confidence right now,” Verdi said. “We’ve won four out of the last five, and you look at, besides the Merrimack game – which was a train wreck – we’re playing good basketball.”

Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m. from the Mullins Center.

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