Kesin: UMass women’s basketball continues to raise its ceiling

Sam Breen and Sydney Taylor lead Verdi’s culture shift

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Chris Tucci / UMass Athletics

By Lulu Kesin, Sports Editor

Sorting through puzzles is something the Massachusetts’s women’s basketball team does quite well. Over the course of the 2021-22 season, UMass found the missing pieces to pull out wins, fight back late and show no mercy.

With an engine fueled by playing their own basketball, the Minutewomen succeeded at playing UMass basketball while also knowing how to outwork an opponent. That balance brought them to their first NCAA tournament appearance in 24 years and while the outcome favored the 27-time tournament dancers in Notre Dame, it’s unlikely that it will take 24 more years for the Minutewomen to dance again.

The celebration and verbal appreciation following the loss wasn’t spoken in a past tense manner. Sam Breen and Sydney Taylor didn’t answer questions with a sole focus on Saturday night or even the season, instead the message was clearly that the loss was a steppingstone in the right direction.

Taylor’s career arc at UMass formulated through hard work, going from bench warmer to starter to star player, it’s no surprise she emphasized getting back into the gym and working towards next year’s repeat. Breen’s progression since stepping into a Minutewomen uniform has only increased, and she still has another year to add to it. Taylor developed into a player that can provide in big moments right behind Breen or at the same level. She also has another year to charge UMass back into tournament territory.

Solved puzzles aside, the Minutewomen proved that no luck brought them to the tournament and no luck will bring them back. A program built on hard work and heart brings out consistent performances from those of Breen and Taylor. That environment allows players like Ber’Nyah Mayo to take on any task with no more pressure than what she puts on herself. In the Atlantic 10 championship, Mayo’s ability to knock down free throws and close out the game was indicative of playing in the moment. It wasn’t that Mayo was hitting the biggest free throws of her life that day. She was just there to hit two free throws, two she has made many times before.

In the NCAA tournament, any lower seed is the natural underdog. On Tuesday, Verdi said his team knows no different than to be that underdog.. UMass echoed a sentiment of knowing it deserved to play in March Madness. The game against Notre Dame was to prove why, but more importantly become a checkpoint along the way of this evolving program transformation under head coach Tory Verdi’s orchestration.

“This year we were good,” Verdi said. “There’s no question about that. We did some amazing things. But if you want to take that next step, you need to be different the following year.”

Mayo is in the height of her formative years. A sophomore who played all 40 minutes 11 times this season is bound to build on her first two underclassmen seasons. With such maturity and a high IQ for the game, her abilities should only progress upward, continuing to be a wise floor general in the A-10 and beyond.

Breen and Taylor’s scoring abilities are a result of pure effort and a nod to their hard work. In conference tournament play alone, Breen had 18 points in her first game, followed by 28 the next day, finishing with 19 in the championship and 31 in the NCAA Tournament game. Breen’s postseason efforts amplified the idea that players can score consistently even when shots don’t fall right away.

Taylor spoke frequently about her desire to become consistent, as did Verdi. With the understanding that her impact is the difference in a win or a loss. Taylor’s senior year should have a more consistent showing that ultimately helps take UMass’ offense to the next level.

Angelique Ngalakulondi and Makennah White clearly filled the missing puzzle piece at the five spot all season long. Ngalakulondi’s efforts on the boards and White’s ability to alter the simplest layups often surge runs for UMass. On Saturday night, Ngalakulondi stole a ball off an inbound play with four seconds on the clock. She recognized the time to pass, passing to Breen who hit the half court buzzer beater, bringing the Minutewomen within eight at the half.

The shot was epic yes, but the steal that stopped a huge play right before the half that would have been a gut punch to UMass was more. The pass and quick thinking made the difference.

With a youthful bench in Stefanie Kulesza along with Alexzeya Brooks, a well-developed culture allows them to learn from these early important moments and by junior and senior year, multiply them. Kulesza played in an A-10 championship before she graduated high school. Brooks played in a NCAA tournament as a freshman. It’s crucial to build on that and capitalize.

So how does UMass become different? It starts with a roster that wants to work hard, a group of dedicated athletes who buy into a program and trust.

And if Destiney Philoxy, the heart of the program decides to return for her COVID-19 eligibility year as a fifth-year player, yeah, that would help too.

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