Araujo: It’s time UMass gets the recognition it rightfully deserves

Minutewomen cut its deficit to one after being down 21 points to Iowa State

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Maya Geer / Daily Collegian

By Michael Araujo, Collegian Staff

Eight seconds left on the clock, down by three, Sam Breen got the ball in the corner and fired off a contested three-pointer, but it was off the mark.

Iowa State would ice the game with a couple of free throws, leaving the Massachusetts women’s basketball team’s comeback attempt just short as they fell 76-71. Despite the loss, the performance that the Minutewomen (7-1) left on the floor was encouraging.

The University of Massachusetts faced its biggest challenge of the season on Sunday when they took on No. 13 Iowa State in the championship game of the Gulf Coast Showcase. The Minutewomen came into the game as the clear underdog, as the Cyclones had blown past Charlotte and Penn State in the first two rounds of the tournament and ranked inside the top 15 of the preseason AP Poll.

“When we first signed up for this tournament, we felt that it was going to be a good tournament for us to really grow and take that next step,” head coach Tory Verdi said. “On any given night we can play with the best teams in the country.”

Down by 18 points at halftime, UMass was not playing with a sense of urgency, appearing timid and not operating as a unit. However, the team refused to roll over. They came together and fought tooth and nail to get back in the game. They fell short of their goal but showed great signs of what’s to come for the program.

Breen and Destiney Philoxy spearheaded the comeback and took turns cutting into the deficit. Philoxy was more aggressive going to the hoop in the second half, with one move in particular standing out, where she took long strides to the basket, and finished off the glass with two hands right in her face. Breen also got to work in the paint, getting put backs and shifting defenders to create space down low.

The two veterans shot lights out from beyond the arc. The pair knocked down 5-of-9 three-point attempts in the second half. This effort helped UMass outscore Iowa State by 13 points in the final two quarters. The dynamic duo led the team in scoring, as Breen finished with 21 points and 12 rebounds, while Philoxy had 15 points and five assists.

While it was the veterans who got the ball rolling, it was the young players that helped turn the spark into a massive run. Sophomore Ber’Nyah Mayo had 13 points thanks to her three triples and flashed her potential on Sunday. Junior Angelique Ngalakulondi was fierce in the paint both offensively and defensively, as she had 14 points, six rebounds, and two blocks. Ngalakulondi had several and-ones and put backs and brought great energy to her team.

With the loss, the Minutewomen exit the tournament with a 2-1 record, with wins coming against South Dakota State and Kent State.

UMass displayed incredible tenacity and composure during the closing minutes of the game. Its ability to block out the noise and bring the game to within one point after being down by as many as 21 points shows the nation how special its roster is. The Minutewomen have talent,  depth and most importantly, heart, which they proved on Sunday night.

“When you’re down like that to a really good team, it’s easy just to quit and fold,” Verdi said. “The fight that we had tonight showed me that they can put this team in a position to win a championship.”

There is no question that UMass will bounce back from the loss. The passion and fire the Minutewomen bring to the court every game demonstrates their capability to beat any team. For those who are still sleeping on this squad, it’s time to wake up.

UMass will return to the Mullins Center on Wednesday and look to get back in the win column against Fairfield at 7 p.m.

Michael Araujo can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @araujo_michael_.