Kesin: Breaking down the Minutewomen heading into the A-10 tournament

A look into what’s worked and what needs improvement

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Kira Johnson/Daily Collegian

By Lulu Kesin, Sports Editor

There wasn’t necessarily a time where the Massachusetts women’s basketball team didn’t look like a strong team. The game of basketball is complex and layered and in the five losses it faced this regular season, there were still areas UMass (23-6, 11-4) excelled in.

Even with a COVID-19 outbreak among the team canceling games and throwing a wrench in conditioning, the Minutewomen still found a way to win against VCU. In losses against Rhode Island and Dayton, Minutewomen still put-up double-digit performances.

The loss to Davidson was a game where UMass got outworked. However likely the least important game of the last few. Against teams all season long, the Minutewomen are able to start slow. Whether that is poor shooting in the first half, unconnected defense or a combination of both plus more, UMass gets away with a second half lift. Comeback runs seem to fuel the Minutewomen and drive home important wins. Fordham most recently was indicative of that.

It isn’t necessarily that teams fold when they realize that UMass just had a bad first half and instead played its best basketball in the second. But to some degree, teams accept it or can’t fight back when UMass punches back from being down. The grind and grit are credited to the Minutewomen’s effort and style of play. However, at some point it was going to occur where a team didn’t want to rewrite the game narrative and let their strong first half end in a loss.

Davidson was exactly that. And the time it occurred is nothing short of a learning lesson for UMass to take into the A-10 tournament.

The Wildcats refused to let the Minutewomen take the lead. They came as close as three points in the second half but almost every time it seemed like UMass’ game, Davidson either hit a 3-pointer or forced a turnover. In the playoffs, records don’t matter. March is Cinderella season. A team like the Wildcats whose record deceived them have the potential to hit shots and stop any potential comeback. One point or five, when UMass comes back and gets even the smallest lead on a team, most of the time it came out with the win after four quarters played.

The Minutewomen didn’t necessarily get complacent or depend on late comebacks, but it became their identify to some degree this season. All bets are off going forward and just like Davidson, UMass must prepare for any team to not give up no matter how close it gets to climbing back into a win.

Here is a breakdown in terms of what the Minutewomen have right now after the regular season ended and what they will bring going forward.

Bench:

A bench? UMass doesn’t have a big one. “Freshman” Stefanie Kulesza suffered a hand injury and is a big question mark for the tournament. Kulesza began turning the corner right before her injury and despite her minutes, the experience she brings from playing with the team last March would go a long way.

What UMass does have though is Michelle Pruitt and Alexzeya Brooks. Both have proven to be not only valuable but haven’t played like any moment is too big for them to handle off the bench. Brooks is just a freshman but has length and height at 5-foot-9. Similar to Kulesza, Brooks has a nice shot from downtown but also knows how to drive for a quality layup. Her season high of 11 points against George Mason was a nice preview of her abilities when given minutes to do so and since, has been seeing the floor earlier and earlier. Head coach Tory Verdi will likely depend on Brooks off the bench even for quick minutes to give Ber’Nyah Mayo a breather.

Michelle Pruitt hasn’t been delt the best deck when it comes to chances since Sam Breen plays a majority of the game, with Angelique Ngalakulondi and Makennah White holding down the five spot. Nonetheless, Pruitt does well when she plays. She’s a graduate student who has played a lot of basketball in her career, which is shown when she steps in the game, cutting to the ball downlow for layups. Pruitt is the type of player who does what she is needed to do, plus a little extra. You often see her with a textbook boxout to open the lane for another Minutewomen to snatch the board and you see her diving for loose balls. If UMass is in foul trouble in tournament play, Pruitt is dependable.

Maturity:

There is no denying the level of maturity Mayo and Breen bring to the team. Breen, a graduate student is nothing short of clutch and levelheaded, win or lose. Mayo has played every game since her freshman year, including close games, blowout wins, an A-10 championship and everything in between. Nothing phases her and that will be huge in the playoffs. She defines the role of a floor general, and that maturity bodes well with Breen to create a unique sophomore and veteran relationship that produces high quality basketball.

The five:

The question before the season started was who would start: Ngalakulondi or White. White took the starting spot but after a few games, things worked better when Ngalakulondi started. That dynamic is never easy but by Feb. 26, the two learned how to find their own roles and each produce for UMass. Early on, it felt like it was one or the other however against Saint Louis on Saturday, White had 11 and Ngalakulondi had 12. This will be huge heading into March, with them each bringing depth on offense and defense respectively for UMass and knowing how to both step up when they are on the floor.

Energy:

Destiney Philoxy proved to be a multifaceted player this season. Sometimes that means big number performances, sometimes that means taking five charges a game or a high number of assists. Sydney Taylor has undoubtably been the lethal weapon for the Minutewomen on offensive. When Taylor has an off day, so does UMass. It’s necessary that these two sparkplugs continue to bring energy when things aren’t falling or when the Minutewomen might need a boost since the team tends to feed off their energy.

The team UMass was in November isn’t like it is now. Better and stronger, the Minutewomen will need to continue to grow, learn from their past mistakes, and play complete UMass basketball to succeed again in March 2022.

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