UMass beats Charlotte, 81-75, for first postseason victory in 25 years

UMass sets program postseason record with 81 points


Judith Gibson-Okunieff

Collegian Staff

By Freeman Alfano, Collegian Staff

Midway through the fourth quarter, the Massachusetts women’s basketball team found itself hanging onto a single-digit lead with a huge problem. All four of its frontcourt options in Sam Breen, Makennah White and Angelique Ngalakulondi had four fouls, one away from fouling out and leaving the Minutewomen (15-8, 7-5 A-10) short-handed. Yet all were able to avoid that fatal fifth, while Breen and Ngalakolundi converted important buckets down the stretch to come away with a bounce back 81-75 victory over Charlotte in the consolation bracket of the WNIT.

“They all knew they had foul trouble, they knew they all had four, and we knew [Charlotte’s players] were going to start attacking Sam,” UMass head coach Tory Verdi said of his team’s frontcourt. “But they played really well with those four fouls, and I was really proud of their effort.”

Breen, in particular, took over in the final frame. She had 11 of her team-high 25 points in the fourth while hitting shots from all three levels and driving aggressively despite the foul trouble. Her ability to outpace the 49ers’ top scoring option in Octavia Jett-Wilson, who also had four fouls for much of the second half, was a huge part of this victory.

“Sam made some tough shots today,” UMass’ Sydney Taylor, who finished with 16 points, said of her teammate’s performance. “It gave us a boost, it gave us energy… her buckets today were really huge.”

Taylor’s long-range shooting and court vision also proved monumental in Saturday’s win for UMass. After the team put up a goose egg from three-point range against Villanova the day before, Taylor quickly hit one from deep with confidence in the first quarter en route to three for the game. The sophomore shooting guard also racked up a career-high seven assists, showcasing that she does more than just score on offense.

“Towards the second quarter, a lot of my shots weren’t falling, so I’m trying to get other people involved,” Taylor said of her playmaking prowess on the afternoon. “I’ve got to do something else to keep us on top; I know I had a good assist to [Angelique] that kind of gave us some good momentum in the fourth quarter.”

Tying Taylor in points on the afternoon was Ngalakulondi, who finished with 16 after a red-hot first half. The sophomore bench scorer had 13 points in the first 20 minutes on a ridiculous 86 percent field goal percentage. The normally paint-roaming Ngalakulondi even flashed her jumper on a couple of occasions as well before dealing with the aforementioned foul trouble in the second half.

“I thought Angelique was huge for us here today, especially in the first half,” Verdi said. “That was great to see.”

As a whole, the Minutewomen were able to more than hold their own defensively after the rough outing the day before. Their 2-3 zone, which has surrendered open looks from beyond the arc at points this season, significantly slowed down the 49ers’ attacking offense. The fact that UMass was able to outscore Charlotte (10-12, 9-5 Conf. USA) in the paint, who take almost 18 shots per game at the rim, is a testament to that.

“We wanted to really contain the penetration from the top from the guards and protect the paint, and I thought we did a really good job of that early on,” Verdi said. “It took them out of their rhythm… [the zone] forced them to take shots they normally don’t take.”

It was a much different game than Friday night from a togetherness and play style standpoint, as well. UMass played much more unselfishly on offense, they were rotating well on defense, and were able to make big plays when they were needed most.

“I challenged them after the last time that we took the floor, and I thought we played more of a complete game,” Verdi said of his team’s ability to bounce back. “Was it perfect? No. But I thought we made huge plays down the stretch…We were tough enough to finish this game and get the win here today.”

Up next comes Ohio on Monday afternoon for UMass’ final game of the season. The day of rest will serve the Mintutewomen well, who faced a back-to-back with only their patented seven-woman rotation at their disposal. Coming off the rest day, there’s only one thing on the team’s mind heading into their last contest of this hectic year.

“Just end the season out with a win; that’d be the main goal,” Taylor said. “Do what we do, run our offense, get everyone involved… [we want to] end the season on a good note.”

Tipoff in Charlotte is scheduled for 4 p.m.

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