Destiney Philoxy and the revolution in UMass women’s basketball
Growing up on a growing team
April 29, 2020
Tory Verdi was convinced that seeing the facilities would do the trick.
In his second year as the Massachusetts women’s basketball coach, he was trying to recruit a point guard out of South Shore High School in Queens, New York by the name of Destiney Philoxy, and he was banking on a visit up to Amherst as his winning argument. The two-year-old, $30 million Champions Center was certainly a plus.
In the end, Philoxy committed on that first trip to campus, but it wasn’t the facilities that won her over. She had already made up her mind.
“I actually live by something called ‘First come, first serve,’” Philoxy said. “When I was younger, Coach Verdi noticed me when no other college did. I was too small to them, I only had a left hand, but he saw me for me, and he knew I could be great. So, I thought of it as, since he knew when nobody did, I should give him the respect to come here.
“So I was like, all right, I’m going to come here, and I’m going to make this school a big place, I’m going to make this program go.”
Two years later, the program has certainly taken off, tying its record for total wins in 2019-2020 and setting a new record for consecutive wins in December and January. Verdi, now in his fourth year, has overseen a turnaround from nine wins his first year, when walk-ons were routinely playing 40 minutes, to 20 wins and the first home playoff game since 1998.
In the middle of it all is Philoxy, the sparkplug for a team with a history of mediocrity.
“We needed somebody like that in our program,” Verdi said. “Everything that she brings: that swag, confidence, a player of her caliber, somebody who can put the ball on the floor and get to the rim. So, a lot of that was really hard for us to find, to get a player like her to visit and consider the University of Massachusetts.”
Growing up in what she described as a dangerous part of Queens, Philoxy knew early on that she was looking for hoops greatness.
“Growing up where we come from, we had to have a dream and keep it in our heads, what we wanted to do,” her sister Selena said. “Destiney, when she was little, we were telling each other, ‘We want to go to the league. We got to get out of here, we’ve got to go to the league.’ If that’s what she wants to do she’s going to do it.”
Philoxy spent much of her time playing with Selena, who would go on to play Division I basketball herself at Seton Hall. By the time she reached high school, Selena was a junior and they weren’t playing one-on-one anymore.
“Honestly, we fought for years trying to figure out who was better,” Destiney said. “But as she started to grow and I started to shrink, I was like, we can’t really compare each other anymore. She’s 6 feet and I’m 5-7, and you can’t really compare a center to a point guard.”
“I already know I’m better than her,” she added with a laugh, “but I’m not going to sit here and tell her.”
Together, the two won a city championship at South Shore, and Destiney won two more in her final two years. Those basketball days knit a tight bond, both between the sisters and with their teammates at South Shore.
Moving away from home, those teammates proved invaluable in preparing her for the grind of college basketball – both in the advice she got in advance and in specific tips since then. Some of them have stayed in touch, even calling her after games to give her pointers.
Meanwhile, Selena’s move up to Seton Hall was an extra kick in the pants for Destiney, who got to see her sister working and succeeding at a much higher level.
“Where I was raised, only some people go to college,” Destiney said, “so by seeing her go and seeing her turn up at her college, seeing her do what she had to do, I was like, I got to do the same for my mom. I’m not the only one person to get out from the projects, from the hood. I’ve got to help my mom out too.”
The life behind her is a little extra motivation, both in searching for something better and in representing where she comes from.
“I see the game differently than everybody else,” Philoxy said. “Some people [who] are born in different places, by them playing basketball and not making it, it doesn’t faze them as much. They have a Plan B to become a doctor or a vet or whatever. But for me, this is my only plan. This is all I wanted to do, and the way I was raised was, you’ve got to get it how you get it, and by me just going to UMass, I feel like, yeah, I’m going to get it, more than anybody else. This game is mine. This is my only way out.”
In November, coming off a loss to St. John’s in her native Queens, Philoxy put up 25 points and led UMass in dismantling Vermont, the first time the Minutewomen showed the potential that had earned them preseason hype. When asked what was clicking, Philoxy said she was focused on shutting one of the Catamounts up.
“I hate trash talkers,” Philoxy said afterwards. “If you’re going to talk trash, I’m not even going to talk back to you. I’m just going to give you what you’re looking for.”
That confidence was one of the major reasons that Verdi saw Philoxy as an essential piece in rebuilding the program. Coming off that nine-win first season, the Minutewomen were short of warm bodies, but even shorter on talent, and the program had no history of success.
Enrolling in the fall of 2018, Philoxy was easily the most dynamic athlete to come into UMass in years, and even in her first semester she never lacked confidence.
“She’s a kid that’s not scared to play against anybody, I don’t care if it’s a Big East team or anybody else,” assistant coach Candice Walker said. “Those are the games that she thrives off of and that she gets her team amped up for, because she wants to win games like that so bad.”
That edge was lacking in a UMass team that was used to getting run off the floor – the Minutewomen were handed a 40-point loss in Verdi’s first Atlantic 10 Tournament game – and it comes not from empty boasting, but from in-depth knowledge of the game.
“She thrives off of what you tell her, but she’s also a really smart kid,” Walker said. “She may try to act like she doesn’t know stuff at times, but she does, and I think that’s how she’s gaining her confidence, by knowing stuff.”
For Philoxy herself, it also came from seeing her teammates frustrated with losing and wanting more for them.
“The confidence doesn’t come from nowhere,” Philoxy said. “If we’re losing and I see my teammates’ reactions and how bad they want to win, when I go in the game, I’m going to show them how bad we need to win. And if we’re winning or I’m starting, I’m going to set the tone, let them know this game’s not a joke, to treat every game like it’s your last. There’s nothing else.”
For all her self-assurance, it wasn’t until late February of her freshman year that Philoxy flashed her full potential on the court.
“Once we put the ball in her hands, she realized, ‘Okay, I can do this,’” Walker said. “I think her breakout game, for her to really realize how good she could be and the potential she had, was when we played at Fordham two years ago. That was her breakout game. She was on a whole other level than everybody on that floor.”
Philoxy finished with 26 points on 72 percent shooting from the floor while racking up five assists, and it came against a Fordham team that finished 12-3 in the A-10 that year and had crushed an overmatched UMass team the year before.
“As a staff after the game, we turned to each other and said, ‘Wow, we got a good one,’” Verdi said. “And we do feel that way, we still continue to feel that about Destiney.”
As Verdi learned afterwards, “getting” Philoxy had nothing to do with the school itself, but with the time he had invested in her as a person.
“Destiney is definitely a relationship kid,” Walker said. “Once she feels that you have her back and you want the best for her as a person, she’s going to run through a wall for you.”
Philoxy’s ability and willingness to spark a connection with just about anyone has helped her form a closer bond with her teammates and the school. At Mapleline Farm in Hadley, UMass fans enamored with the Minutewomen’s star guard named a calf after her.
“You can see it when she walks in a room,” Verdi said. “The thing is, she’s lovable – her teammates love her. She’s a great recruiter, by the way. When we have people on campus and they met her, she’s great with people.”
For Walker, it’s Philoxy’s ability to form a unique relationship with each of her teammates that has made her endearing to everyone around the team. She recalled one time a player came to show her new $200 shoes that Destiney had bought her for her birthday.
“It was the last person on the team that I would’ve thought she’d buy something for,” Walker said. “She has a relationship with each individual on the team, and that definitely helps on the court as well.”
Walker has reason to know; she’s been the one tasked with working one-on-one with Philoxy and overseeing not only her development as a basketball player, but her maturation as a person, as well.
“She’s an amazing person, she treats me like I’m one of hers,” Philoxy said. “I couldn’t ask for a better position coach.”
Philoxy also credited her development in part to the bonds she formed with her old high school teammates, particularly Arlette Scott, a former rival turned close friend now playing at Providence.
“We used to compete with each other, but then growing up we realized that we were the only ones in our class that wanted it so bad,” Philoxy said. “So, we stopped fighting and started working out together. She taught me some things, I taught her some things, and we just became best friends I guess.”
Like Walker and Verdi, once Scott was on her side, Philoxy was ready to run through a wall for her.
“They’ve been real close, and I like that they are getting close, just because Destiney’s in Amherst where she doesn’t have family or friends with her,” Selena said. “So, I think it’s good that she’s keeping in touch with one of our former players. But Arlette’s like family.”
It’s been a long road for Philoxy since she committed on her first trip to campus.
Although she flashed on the court, the adjustment to college life wasn’t easy. For someone who had been born and raised in New York City, she found herself away from home and in an entirely new place, apart from her support system and in an atmosphere very different from her hometown.
“I really didn’t get a lot of diversity where I was from, so seeing different people or getting to know different people was uncomfortable,” Philoxy said. “At the same time, I wasn’t raised to discriminate or stuff like that. Different people opened my eyes more to how reality is.”
While her coaches and teammates became her new support system and helped her adjust to the foreign setting, college life also introduced a heavy workload and more requirements than just the ones on the court.
“I still had the mindset of high school, like not doing work and playing catch-up would be easy,” Philoxy said. “In college it’s totally different. Playing catch-up is the worst thing you can actually do in college. Me failing a class – not even failing, D as the lowest class, but not having the high GPA that I should get hurt me a lot. I know I’m capable of a lot, but I still have yet to prove it.”
In between battling homesickness, academics and the struggles of adjusting to life alone, Philoxy was also facing a whole new level of competition, and that called for her to shore up her game.
“[She’s grown in] being consistent in her work habits every single day instead of just showing up to practice and trying to get through it,” Verdi said. “Her goal is ‘I’m going to be the best player on the floor.’ Well, at times she is and at other times she’s not, and understanding that if you want to be great, you’ve got to find that consistency.”
There were also mental adjustments to make. Her sister warned her about her “disgusting” attitude during the recruitment process, and Philoxy had to learn a measure of humility.
“She didn’t want to listen to nobody [in high school],” Selena said. “Every time she turned the ball over it was someone else’s fault. She was very stubborn, to a point where nobody could talk to her. But she’s our point guard, so I had to tell her, ‘You’ve got to step it up, because you’re the one with the ball in your hands.’ So, I’m so glad she improved. I tell her every day.”
Underneath her confidence, there’s also a level on which Philoxy needs to convince herself of her own abilities, particularly in areas of her game that she doesn’t rely on. This past year, she spent hours in the gym with Walker trying to develop her jump shot, which was a source of jokes in high school.
“She has confidence, but it’s weird because at times it feels like she doesn’t,” Walker said, “and the times that it feels like she doesn’t, I step in and correct it, [saying], ‘No, you have to believe.’ If you really want to achieve something, you’ve got to believe in it all the time, whether things are going bad and going wrong.”
Coming into her sophomore year, after a strong end to her freshman campaign and with a year of college under her belt, there was reason to think that Philoxy was about to find the consistency that Verdi had been looking for. But after recording double-digit points in her first seven games, a foot injury cost her four weeks in the middle of the season – four weeks in the middle of an 11-game winning streak that broke the program record – and she struggled to get back in the flow.
“In the beginning, she didn’t understand why she couldn’t finish as good as before, or why she wasn’t making certain shots she was making before,” Walker said. “I do think it took a toll on her, but with me and her getting in the gym as much as we can, it kind of helped her finish strong, it helped her get her confidence back. I think the injury definitely took some of her confidence away.”
Philoxy was able to finish strong, racking up 18 points against Saint Louis late in the season to get back into the starting lineup. She scored 12 with six assists two weeks later in UMass’ win against St. Bonaventure in the first round of the A-10 Tournament. But the lost time leaves a “what-if?” hanging over her second season.
“If she didn’t get hurt, I think that her play would’ve been more consistent and her production probably would’ve been higher and better for us,” Verdi said. “I do think that her getting injured hurt us a little bit, but I also think that everything happens for a reason and I think this is going to make her tougher. It’s going to help her down the road.”
If the injury cost Destiney some of her production this past year, it’s also cause to expect more in the next couple of years.
Without arguably its most dynamic player in late December and early January, UMass continued to roll. Even with Philoxy limited for most of the Atlantic 10 schedule, the Minutewomen won nine conference games and earned a home game in the first round of the tournament.
On the court, her coaches are still anticipating consistency in her play – the day when her flashes of potential solidify into routine greatness.
“At times I don’t know if Destiney knows how good she can be,” Verdi said. “And that’s where I feel that maturation process is in progress right now, because I know that if she was consistent in everything she does, the sky’s the limit in regard to her success.”
Like Philoxy, the Minutewomen have reached new heights but are still looking for more untapped potential. For a program that has never gotten above 20 wins, Verdi and Walker are looking to reset expectations, and Philoxy’s confidence is the fuel they need.
“We say we want to get into the Top 25, we say we want to win championships, we say we want to have a winning team, a winning culture,” Walker said. “Destiney believes all that… So, I definitely see that rubbing off on everybody else on the program, and winning games gives everybody confidence, gives everybody that winning mentality, gives everybody that swag. But I definitely think Destiney is the frontrunner.”
For Philoxy herself, UMass is a stepping stone on what she hopes will be a longer journey. Since she was playing with her sister in Queens, she’s dreamed of playing in the WNBA, and she’d also like to play overseas if the opportunity arises, or maybe even become the first female player in the NBA.
Whichever path she takes, she has two goals: to make a name for herself and to repay her family for the opportunities she’s gotten.
“I got to give my mom back what she gave me,” Philoxy said. “So, me and my sister being in college, that doubles her, so that makes her even more happy. We’re working on ourselves. My mom leaves, she knows we’re left in good hands.”
In the meantime, although Philoxy is aiming higher, UMass is more than a way station. She’s already seen the program grow, and there are higher peaks within reach.
“I want to leave this school with a big name,” Philoxy said. “I don’t want to leave it just as Destiney Philoxy. I want my name on one of the banners, I want my jersey up. I want to leave a mark; I don’t want to become an alum that nobody knows. I want to make sure when I leave this program it’s in good hands, and that I actually created or helped out with this school upcoming.”
Thomas Haines can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @thainessports.