Confident Minutewomen feel no pressure heading into team’s final two games of the season

Coming off a three-week absence, the Minutewomen are ready for two tough conference opponents in VCU and Richmond

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Nina Walat/Daily Collegian

By Freeman Alfano, Collegian Staff

On Friday, the University of Massachusetts women’s basketball team will face a foe its already topped this season — the Virginia Commonwealth University Rams. On paper, this expects to be a simple roadblock for the Minutewomen, who “beat [the Rams] at their own game” in the January matchup, according to head coach Tory Verdi. With that being said, this contest will be anything but simple for UMass, coming off three losses dating back to the end of January and have been on a near month-long absence since.

“I’m sure we’re going to have some anxiety; it’s going to be like first game jitters all over again,” said Verdi on the team’s return from the schedule pause. “But I think our players are excited about this coming week, and it’s a big week for us.”

That week consists of two weekend matchups on Friday and Sunday against VCU and Richmond, respectively. These will be the last two games of the season before the Atlantic 10 Tournament. Both opponents sit ahead of the Minutewomen in the conference standings, who are currently seventh despite a 10-5 overall record.

Of the program’s handful of pauses and postponements this season, Verdi said, “It’s just unfortunate that we lose out on six games, [and] frustrating as well when you look at that.” He added, “Besides Fordham and us and probably Duquesne, [we] are going to end up with the least amount of games played in the A-10 – games that would have a tremendous effect on the league standings. But we have no control over that. We lose three games and we’re in seventh place; it is what it is.”

All the Minutewomen can do at this point is continue to “win the day,” as Verdi has preached all season long. That starts with Friday’s matchup against the Rams, who are on a two-game win streak and competed well against UMass in their previous contest. Virginia features a guard-centric attack and consistently employs small ball lineups, which punishes other teams but doesn’t matchup up ideally against an active UMass defense.

“It all starts [with] doing all the little things: diving on loose balls, getting deflections and steals, and then we turn them into points,” Verdi said of what he expects out of the defense based on their last matchup. “I’m really intrigued to see how tough we are, and we have a lot to prove.”

They will have to continue to be tough against VCU’s top scoring options in Tera Reed and Taya Robinson. Those two have consistently given teams trouble on the perimeter but were held to just 33 percent shooting in the matchup against UMass. Even coming off of this break, the Minutewomen are confident they can repeat this type of performance against anyone, not just VCU.

“We’ve got to be grateful [the season] is on pause and not shut down,” team captain and starting guard Destiney Philoxy said. “Regardless of if we have a season or not, we know we’re the best team in the A-10, and we stuck to that.”

Heading into the final stretch of the season, this confidence will serve the Minutewomen well. They have two games left to improve their conference standing before competing for something they’ve wanted all season long in an A-10 championship. Even below the surface, this team is calm and ready to compete.

“There’s no pressure, and all I expect is us to go out there and work extremely hard and try to represent the University of Massachusetts the right way,” Verdi said of the stress level of these final two games. “There’s no pressure for us, and maybe that’s a good thing, too.”

This Minutewomen team heads into Friday and Sunday’s matchups with nothing to lose. Tipoff in Amherst is scheduled for noon, followed by 1 p.m. two days later.

Freeman Alfano can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @freemanalfano.