UMass finishes final home game of the regular season with a win

Minutewomen top VCU 66-57

Brianna+Alexander%2F+Daily+Collegian

Brianna Alexander/ Daily Collegian

By Lulu Kesin, Sports Editor

Nails in the coffin and a smile. Sydney Taylor sank two free throws to make the score 66-57 with 13 seconds to go. Once the ball landed back in Taylor’s hands, she dribbled out the clock as celebrations erupted, grinning even wider.

On Wednesday night, the Massachusetts women’s basketball team outlasted Virginia Commonwealth, securing the No. 3 seed in the Atlantic 10 tournament and an undefeated record in the regular season against the Rams (14-9, 9-4 A-10.)

UMass (22-6, 10-4 A-10) switched things up for its last game at home and ultimately for the better. After a plague of slow starts resulting in both wins and losses, the Minutewomen took it to VCU for all 40 minutes, leveling out play but still winning the battle after four quarters.

“I thought our response coming off a loss was what it needed to be,” head coach Tory Verdi said. “We had a great sense of urgency right from the get-go [Wednesday night] and we fought hard for 40 minutes. Overall, we were just connected. Regardless of if we faced some adversity along the way or they went on a little run, we still responded [and] we stayed together and didn’t allow anything to get us down. That was the difference of the ball game.”

VCU was overplaying the Minutewomen, so they back cut and got easy layups. Once UMass recognized that consistent opportunity, it began to run plays to take advantage.

With 1:48 to play in the third quarter, Ber’Nyah Mayo dished to Angelique Ngalakulondi who held the ball until Taylor ran through a series of screens then past her overplaying defender for an open layup.

The Rams then began to take away the back cut, but the Minutewomen adjusted again.

To close out the third, UMass ran a similar play. Mayo threw to Makennah White who hit Taylor, but Taylor quickly recognized how her defender adjusted. She dribbled back out to catch the ball just to the right of the top of the key for a 3-point thriller at the buzzer. Taylor’s shot put the Minutewomen up 52-47.

“Our players executed,” Verdi said. “We were calling stuff on the fly, and they executed, and we got exactly what we were looking for … VCU wants you to take quick shots and we knew coming in … we wanted to make them defend us more than 10 seconds.”

Taylor finished with a game-high 23 points on 7-for-16 from the field. Mayo added eight points and five boards while Ngalakulondi had 10 points and five rebounds respectively.

In the first quarter, UMass had an edge to it, coming out on a 7-0 run in the first two minutes. Instead of climbing to match the set tone, the Minutewomen did every little thing to take away easy opportunities from the Rams. With the height disadvantage, UMass had to slide in for help defense and managed to do so with correct timing. In the opening quarter, it had three steals followed by three more in the second.

Despite losing the battle on the boards, the Minutewomen were still able to create valuable basketball off misfires. Notably, after two wide open layup attempts, Taylor took the ball right to the hole but with enough control to avoid the defender camping out under the hoop waiting to take a charge. A play later, Breen tipped the ball out into the hands of Philoxy who then hit Breen again for a 3-pointer. The Minutewomen only shot 22 percent from downtown to VCU’s 30 but shot 47 percent to its 40 from the field. UMass held a lead for 35 minutes and seven seconds of 40 minutes.

The Rams rejuvenated in the second quarter a bit, forcing UMass to up the ante on offense. Mayo’s ballhawk persona once again carried through and stripped the ball as VCU attempted to take the lead or tie the game heading into halftime.

Tasked to take down star guard Taya Robinson who dropped 18 in the first half last time these two teams met, Philoxy and Taylor had to play tight defense which forced Breen and Mayo to fight for boards. 4:24 in the first quarter, Taylor shot from downtown with plenty of time on the clock and missed, but Mayo hustled to the board to secure a fresh 30 for the Minutewomen and scooped layup into two points for herself. The extra effort allowed even what seemed like wasted procession for UMass to be nothing more than an extra look at the basket.

Late in the fourth, with clock awareness and the score on the top of her mind, Philoxy danced with the ball, drew two defenders, and hit Breen who stood in front of her own bench and sank a jump shot to extend the lead.

Breen finished with 15 points and 12 points, marking her 17th double-double of the season and 40th of her career.

For its final game of the regular season, UMass travels to Saint Louis on Saturday for a nighttime showdown. Tip-off is set for 8 p.m.

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