Shavonne Smith: UMass basketball’s missing puzzle piece

“I feel like she is exactly what we needed”

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Chris Tucci/ UMass Athletics

By Lulu Kesin, Sports Editor

Five different players on the Massachusetts women’s basketball team scored in double figures on opening night. Senior transfer from Towson University Shavonne Smith was not one of them.

In just under the 18 minutes that Smith played against Central Connecticut State University on Tuesday night, Smith had seven points and went 3-for-3 from the field. While her point production did not compare numbers wise to those of teammates Ber’Nyah Mayo or Destiney Philoxy who had double doubles respectively, Smith showcased the player she is and what she brings to this UMass team.

With just under four minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, Sam Breen spun gracefully around a CCSU defender, throwing the ball ahead to Smith who was sprinting the floor. As a Blue Devil defender caught up to attempt to catch Smith off guard, the veteran senior instead took the impact, made the layup, and put herself at the line for a 3-point play. Following the ball securely swish into the net, the entire Minutewomen bench rose to their feet, erupting in applause and celebration for the skillful play by the UMass rookie.

UMass upperclassmen Breen and Sydney Taylor lent their hand to Smith for help off the ground, then proceeded to chest bump her.

Last season, head coach Tory Verdi looked for transition basketball and one-legged layups every game. In game one of the 2021-22 season, Verdi’s newest edition knew exactly what to do.

“I feel like she is exactly what we needed,” Philoxy said. “She is like the missing piece to our puzzle. Yes, we all can drive but we need someone else explosive when teams are all on us, we need someone else to depend on. [Smith] comes off the bench and she has that energy, that spark that we need.”

Following the successful transition basket, Smith once again ran the floor at full speed and caught Taylor’s eye. The ball was picked off before it could reach Smith, but the right idea was displayed between the duo.

“She is fast, she gets down the court,” junior Angelique Ngalakulondi said. “She finishes, she is tough, and she brings a lot of energy. I’m excited for her.”

Last season’s playoff campaign highlighted the newly created nickname by Mayo, “the Savage Seven,” after UMass went to the Atlantic 10 tournament with just seven Minutewomen. Even before players left the squad, Verdi kept a short rotation. The core five or six players had even more pressure put on them with minimal help from the bench.

“We want everybody to play,” Philoxy said. “It’s our job as starters to start off right and it’s the bench’s job to make sure we hear them to make sure that we know they are ready. Once we started and we [get] going, the bench, they [get] warmed up and they are ready, they do their thing. That’s honestly the best part about having a bench. We can relax and have no worries when we are sitting down.”

Smith, along with freshman Stefanie Kulesza provided meaningful minutes on Tuesday night off the bench along with Ngalakulondi who was in frequent rotation with Makennah White.

Another critical aspect that was missing from the 2020-21 team was the guards’ rebounding abilities and lack of help on the boards. With a player like Smith who uses her 5-foot-11-inch guard height to an advantage, Verdi has that much more help down low which provides Breen and White the chance to streak out and score over shorter centers like they did on Tuesday.

“She can rebound for a guard, we needed that,” Verdi said. “That was one of the biggest things we tried to address from a year ago was rebounding. She brings that from a guard’s perspective. Just her ability to slash and get to the rim and be so explosive is going to help us down the stretch.”

Smith, who first checked in at the five minute and 44 second mark for Taylor embodies bench energy and a six man’s mentality.

“We want to push the pace and attack in transition and that is what [Smith] brings,” Verdi said. “She is explosive. She didn’t play her best basketball here today, but you saw a little bit of it and what she is capable of doing.”

Smith and the rest of the Minutewomen team stay home to face Harvard on Friday. Tip-off is set for 5 p.m.

Lulu Kesin can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @Lulukesin.