With energy and effort, Minutewomen “break through the wall” to advance to A-10 Championship

Fatigue not a factor in UMass’ post-season run

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Brian McWalters/Atlantic 10 Conference

By Freeman Alfano, Collegian Staff

Late in the second quarter, the Massachusetts women’s basketball team found themselves in a tight-knit, back-and-forth battle for a trip to the A-10 Championship on the line.

Up 33-31, Sydney Taylor hit a three with a Saint Louis (12-4,9-3 A-10) arm slapping her and subsequently converted her chance from the charity stripe. Sam Breen then followed that up with an and-one of her own and let out a lion-esque roar after the momentous sequence.

“Even if they went on a run, we didn’t let that slow down our momentum, so just having those plays to build us up even more [were huge],” Breen said.

With just two reserves available to suit up, it was those types of energizing plays that powered UMass (14-6, 7-5 A-10) to victory over the Billikens, which were consistent throughout the contest. Another one occurred at the end of the fourth quarter off a missed Saint Louis shot. Sydney Taylor fired an outlet pass to Ber’nyah Mayo, who sprinted half the length of the court in a few seconds and hit a layup to beat the buzzer.

“A round of applause to Sydney [Taylor] and [Mayo] for knowing how much time was on the clock,” Destiney Philoxy said of that play. “They knew and they were connected, and that’s what mattered the most.”

That sense of connectivity is consistent across the roster, who have shown to pick one another up when they’re down and cheer one another on when things go right. That starts with Philoxy and Breen, who have set the tone with optimism, communication, and 100 percent effort.

“By us having energy in today’s game, [my teammates] see what we did and they pulled through with us,” Philoxy, who had 28 points in the contest, said of her and Breen’s consistent energy and its impact throughout the roster. “That’s why I love this team. We have heart, and we stay together no matter what.”

“We say it all the time: positive energy is infectious, and that’s starts with us,” Breen said, who had 28 points of her own. “Some of those finishes we had, some of those and-ones we had, I don’t know if we finish those if we don’t have the energy, and I think both of us pride ourselves in being consistent with that.”

This level of energy and effort was something the Minutewomen didn’t show in their loss to Saint Louis back in January. In that contest, Billikens center Brooke Flowers had over 20 rebounds as UMass was outworked on the boards and in the paint. This one was a different story, though, with the Minutewomen scoring over 50 points in the paint and holding their own on the glass.

One of the main reasons for that shift was the motor of Angelique Ngalakulondi, the once faintly used reserve who has emerged as a key contributor in tournament play. While her impact didn’t necessarily show up on the box score (six points and rebounds), her defensive intensity and impact near the rim on both ends of the floor was a significant reason the Minutewomen finished on top.

“Angelique came in, and boy, does she alter a lot of shots,” Verdi said of her presence. “She gave us a lot of momentum; there is no question about it. Her ability to go to the boards and get second-chance opportunity points – they were big for us tonight. She has impacted this game and our program.”

Ngalakulondi, who played a season-high 20 minutes in the victory, is likely feeling the effects of fatigue, along with the rest of her teammates. Breen still has not missed a minute of game action in the tournament, and Taylor played the entirety of Saturday’s matchup. Yet they still flew in transition and battled in the paint, making the effects of stamina seem non-existent.

“You can be tired, but the great players don’t get tired,” Verdi said. “The great players find a way to get through that wall… Our players not only hit the wall, but right now, they’re going through the wall. They’re continuing on, and that’s what’s so special about them.”

The run they are on is pretty special, too. It’s the first time that UMass has been in the A-10 Championship since 1998 and the second time that a seven seed has made it to the final game.

Up next is Virginia Commonwealth, a team they split their season-series with after losing in the final seconds to them at the end of February. An A-10 Championship, something Breen has set her sights on since coming to UMass and something Philoxy has said multiple times that the team will accomplish this season, is now within striking distance. Yet Verdi is less worried about the final result than one would think a head coach would be.

“To be honest with you, I just want my players to go out there and play,” Verdi said of the possibility. “I want them to enjoy the game, and I want them to work hard. To me, that means just as much as winning a championship.”

Tipoff in Richmond is scheduled for Sunday at noon.

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