Kesin: Stop acting like the Minutewomen’s success is new

UMass basketball is building on a successful program, not just starting one

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Shilpa Sweth/ Daily Collegian

By Lulu Kesin, Sports Editor

If you have been paying attention, there is no reason to be surprised by the Massachusetts women’s basketball team. This past week, success the Minutewomen had is representative of their skill, behavior, and game plan all season long and your delayed attention or support doesn’t redefine that.

While riding a winning 14-2 record, UMass has done so based on the true fundamentals of basketball however the use of the word “women” in front of their team’s name often pushes attention away from the team.

It’s quite ironic that those who claim they know basketball best, turn a blind eye to a program that epitomizes the game in the truest form.

While the discussion typically results in a comparison between both basketball programs on campus, there is no efficiency in that. Their records are far from connected and the success or lack thereof from either program doesn’t give the other more power. Basketball is basketball and since the start of the 2021-22 season, Tory Verdi’s campaign has been to play UMass basketball. And that has certainly been done.

For the Minutewomen, their first loss this season shattered a glass ceiling. The first seven games gave UMass the chance to put up big numbers on non-conference opponents. Large statement wins like its season opener foreshadowed the offensive success the Minutewomen would go on to have this season. And early season wins against teams like Harvard reminded schools that historically do well against UMass, that things have changed this season.

So, riding a 7-0 run, the Minutewomen were tasked to prove that their success had nothing to do with weak opponents or lack of competition. The Gulf Coast Showcase championship game found Massachusetts’s flagship facing then-No. 13 Iowa State. An 18-point deficit at halftime to a superstar duo of lethal three-point shooters and a stacked Cyclones team proved to be no issue for UMass. Out of halftime, the tables turned and the Minutewomen squashed the lead, finding themselves down only three points with 45 seconds to go.

From there, the reflection can go many ways. Then No. 13 now No. 9 Iowa State rides a 16-1 record, trailblazing through women’s basketball, upsetting teams left and right. UMass didn’t just hang with the big dogs for four quarters, instead it asserted itself as a top tier program. However, making the loss itself against a ranked opponent as the sole focus ignores what got the Minutewomen there in the first place: they did. Because they know how to play basketball.

Mental toughness, quick thinking, adaptability, teamwork, high-level game awareness. All those fundamental aspects to a successful comeback, UMass embodied on Nov. 28 against Iowa State. Sam Breen’s rusty first half turned into a monster second by moving on from the past, ignoring the uncontrollable and focusing on the task ahead. Breen wound up with a 21-point game. Destiney Philoxy’s big time foul shooting late in the game was pure mental strength from the veteran. The Minutewomen’s lockdown defense and crisp offense wasn’t any magic, it was the fundamentals of basketball running through five people on the court, working for the same goal and outcome.

Like Verdi said following the game on Nov. 28, the loss gave people an opportunity to see what the Minutewomen can do but noting that his team is nowhere near done. Since then, UMass has continued to play its game of basketball and as of January 2022, many people seem to think this is a new thing.

The UMass men’s team is losing? So what.

That isn’t the reason why the women’s team is winning and shouldn’t be the reason you decide to care. While attention in this generation is already so fragile, the only shock to some should be that you actually can support both programs equally. You can show up to the Mullins Center on two different nights. It isn’t limited to one or the other.

The energy and discourse on Twitter this week had this idea of “well the men’s team isn’t good, so I guess I’ll turn to women’s.” That behavior is part of the larger, historical problems surrounding support for women’s sports; however, the new support can’t be a verbal shock about how well UMass is doing now.

UMass isn’t in “watch out” mode after defeating A-10 champions Virginia Commonwealth. It has been in watch out mode since losing to the Rams in March. Sydney Taylor’s performance on Jan. 12 didn’t originate her hero story. Taylor’s ability to go from a bench riding freshman to one of the most talented and skilled players in the A-10 by her sophomore year was the start of it. Taylor’s story defines the journey athletes often take at the collegiate level and the growth required to succeed at the highest level. Any follower of sports, basketball or the flagship should appreciate it.

Angelique Ngalakulondi emerged as an offensive rebounding specialist early into the season, earning her a spot in the starting lineup for UMass. The seamless switch between Makennah White and Ngalakulondi in the starting lineup further demonstrates not only the versatility of the Minutewomen but the unselfishness as well. Both post players contribute and are in large part the reason why UMass is one of the best teams in the country right now for offensive rebounds. Second chance opportunities create life on offense and kill any good defense and that is a crucial part of why the Minutewomen succeed day in and day out. Breen has mastered the art of the inside out game, feeding her guards when the time is right while still taking the layup herself when the defense allows her to do so. Ber’Nyah Mayo lobs almost every pass perfectly over any defender while Taylor runs the floor, getting transition baskets to push the speed of the game in UMass’ favor. Philoxy leads the team in charges taken, sacrificing her body whether it’s the first play of the game or the very last.

The Minutewomen work in sync, for each other every game. The high fives following missed or made layups, the encouragement after large or small plays and appreciation for one another is visible. Those aspects create a successful team. Under Verdi’s orchestration, textbook pick and roll offense, tight ball screens, high pressure man defense, fluid ball movement allows UMass to share the wealth in each and every win, scoring and defending at any and every level.

So if you tuned in on Saturday and watched Mayo’s layup at the buzzer in overtime send the Minutewomen home from Virginia 2-0, continue to expect that same level of grit and endurance for games to come. There is a lot more to see from the UMass basketball program.

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