Kesin: Tory Verdi won the day, but the entire program won the season

Head coach Tory Verdi snagged his 150th career win

Laura+Wolff

Laura Wolff

By Lulu Kesin, Collegian Staff

Stefanie Kulesza stood at the free throw line as Sam Breen exited the game, with 58 seconds remaining in the season. It wasn’t a high five that met her when her shoe hit the sideline — it was something verbal.

Through a computer screen, it was impossible to hear what head coach Tory Verdi said when he stopped Breen. Shortly after the final game of the season, as he sat in his hotel room, Verdi looked up at the ceiling and hesitated when asked about what he said to his player.

Then, a smile formed.

“We talked, we talked,” Verdi said, laughing. “Let’s just put it this way, we had a great conversation. Sam knows that I love coaching her, as I do all of them. I’m just super proud of the things she has accomplished as a player and as a person.”

Throughout the entire 2020-21 season, Verdi has asked his team one thing: to have a “win the day” mentality. With that comes physical sacrifice, heart and a never-ending desire to succeed. But more than anything, it’s how he saw his team getting through this season.

Looking back to November, it was obvious nobody knew what the season would be like. The unexpected had to be expected at every moment, while continuing to prepare for matchups, conference games and eventually, tournament play.

In many ways, the Minutewomen defied odds this season in addition to program records being shattered as frequently as Destiney Philoxy took charges.

Laura Wolff

UMass defeated Fordham for the first time in 11 years back in January. About a week later, when the Minutewomen took down Saint Louis on the road, UMass recorded in its best start to the season since 1976-77.  Philoxy is an assist specialist but took home her first career double- double against Davidson. Breen herself finished the season with 15 career double-doubles.

But almost every time a hot streak occurred or rhythm was created, it seemed as though the opposing school had a positive COVID-19 test or contact tracing cancelation that left a postponement in the record book.

For UMass, however, there was not a single positive case or contact tracing issue the entire season. The most crucial stat in this pandemic season.

As much as the “win the day” mentality seemed to resonate with the team throughout the season, it wasn’t until the days leading up to tournament play that the true meaning of Verdi’s motto was felt in every aspect. It didn’t matter how long it took to fully resonated; it was more important that it was in the end.

A conversation. One with Verdi and his team about the program, and what he wanted to change. Verdi could tell from that moment on that what was said, his Minutewomen took to heart.

When the news broke that two players left the program, and ultimately two more did not travel to the A-10 Tournament, the seven remaining Minutewomen knew better than to listen to those who counted them out. As the flight took off for Richmond and Ber’Nyah Mayo suggested the team nickname “Savage Seven,” the deeply rooted, team-first mentality was on full display.

It was the hustle plays when sweat began to drip after almost four quarters played with just two subs. The one-legged layups at the buzzer in three different playoff games, something that Verdi has asked for from his team all season long. The career-high games from players like Angelique Ngalakulondi and 3-point showcases from Sydney Taylor that brought what looked like a team with a slim chance, the opportunity to play for a A-10 Championship.

The seven-headed monster led by captains Philoxy and Breen, who combined for 56 points in the A-10 semifinal game, may have come up short on championship Sunday. But even without a plane ride home in t-shirts, hats and with a cut-down net, the Minutewomen remained victorious.

On Saturday, UMass snagged its first post-season win in 26 years in the Women’s National Invitational Tournament. The tweet-worthy stat wasn’t enough to satisfy the Minutewomen, as they amped it up when they made history on Monday by being the first team in the program to have multiple post-season wins.

“They not only won the day, they won the month,” Verdi said. “There is no question about that. It just goes to show what type of kids we have in the program and they want to represent UMass the right way.”

Verdi has a tradition after every game where one player is selected to “plant the flag” and receive recognition for their performance. As the team entered the locker room for the last time after a game in Bojangles Coliseum, it’s safe to say the members of the 2020-21 Minutewomen team planted the flag this season.

“All seven young women that I’ve got to coach have made the best out of an unbelievable situation that was put in front of them. It has not been easy and in my eyes, they’re champions,” Verdi said.

Lulu Kesin can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @Lulukesin.