Chris Tucci/UMass Athletics
“We did not function as a team today. Period.”
That’s what Massachusetts women’s basketball team head coach Tory Verdi said after the team’s loss to Saint Joseph’s on Jan. 29. The Minutewomen (11-6, 7-5 Atlantic 10) defense let up their highest field goal percentage of the season in that game (50.9 percent) and made just 20 percent of their 3-point attempts on offense.
Three games, two COVID-19 postponements and one Atlantic 10 Tournament elimination game on deck later, UMass thinks they can put together a different effort against the Hawks (7-9, 5-9 A-10) than what they did then.
“We know that they’re going to come and give us everything that they have,” Verdi said of what they’re expecting from the Hawks. “[But] they need to match our intensity. They need to match our physicality and we have to outwork them.”
The Minutewomen may not be able to give everything they have from a personnel standpoint, however. Starting center Maddie Sims, who has been out with a concussion since late February, could have played her last game as a Minutewoman. She may have her minutes taken over by freshman Makennah White, who produced 12 points and eight rebounds in the team’s last game (which, coincidentally, was Maddie Sims day).
“I think that she’s starting to come into her own and get more and more confidence; throughout the last couple of games, she’s played really well for us,” Verdi said of the freshman forward while not specifying whether Sims is available or not. “We expect [White] to play a lot for us, and I’m excited about her and where she is.”
With that limited frontcourt depth extending to former center Maeve Donnelly, the onus is on top scoring and rebounding option Sam Breen to do more of what she’s provided all season. As a result, Breen and the rest of her teammates have spent the last week and a half extensively prepping for this elimination game.
“We’ve had some really solid practices – just cleaning some stuff up, putting some new stuff in, and polishing that up has been really good for us,” Breen said. “We’ve been able to take a breath and really focus on us.”
To truly focus on them, the Minutewomen need their underclassmen to not succumb to the moment. Some of these freshmen and sophomores include starting guards Ber’Nyah Mayo and Sydney Taylor, who have played a combined two minutes in A-10 Tournament games, and Stefanie Kulesza, the high schooler-turned-collegiate athlete who has yet to make her Minutewomen debut.
“Take a deep breath, it’s okay to be nervous, but don’t let that turn into anxiety,’” Breen said of what she’s communicated to her less experienced teammates ahead of their first tournament play. “Take those nerves and turn them into excitement.”
That sense of energy feels almost palpable listening to Verdi and Breen speak, who have accomplished a great amount during their short time together in Amherst. But there is one goal that neither have yet to complete: an A-10 Championship. While that goal is certainly within sight, it starts with winning the day against the Hawks, as Verdi has preached all season long, and going from there.
“The approach is just being the best version of us that we can be each and every single day,” Verdi said. “We want to compete and stay in Richmond as long as we can… we’ve got to show up and do the things we’re capable of doing.”
Tipoff in Richmond is scheduled for 5 p.m.
Freeman Alfano can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @freemanalfano.