UMass advances to A-10 championship with win over Saint Joseph’s

Minutewomen defeat Hawks 76-58


Greg Fiume / Atlantic 10

By Lulu Kesin, Sports Editor

WILMINGTON, Dela. — Off an inbounds play, Sydney Taylor drove hard to the basket as the whistle blew resulting in immediate celebration for the 3-point play. The first referee signaled the foul on the floor, half of the gym yelling “count it,” while signaling the motion for an and one call.

Head coach Tory Verdi got in on the chants before the referees met to discuss the foul. The referees signaled for an and one, putting a smile on Taylor’s face as she jumped into her teammate’s arms. With 1:33 to play, Taylor converted the free throw, putting the icing on the cake to a joyful 76-58 win in the Atlantic 10 semifinals.

After an explosive first half from Sam Breen, Taylor relit the fire in the second half and the duo combined for 48 points to bring No. 3 UMass (26-6, 11-4 A-10) over No. 7 Saint Joseph’s (13-17, 7-8 A-10)

“Just incredibly proud of this team,” Verdi said. “I just thought that today we had a sense of urgency about ourselves. I thought we did a great job executing on both sides of the ball … Sam Breen did a great job of anchoring us in the first half and then [Taylor] just took over in the second half. It just goes to show that we have a balanced scoring attack.”

With the length and athleticism that the Hawks brought to the table, the Minutewomen needed to diversify their game on the offensive end to tire out Saint Joseph’s and maximize production. While first quarter shooting and offensive construction has been a debatable Achilles’ heel for UMass all season, Breen rewrote the narrative and instead got her team to a lethal start. After missing both free throws at the charity stripe, Breen then went a perfect 8-for-8 from the field, scoring 18 in the first quarter.

Coming off a Cinderella game on Friday night when the Hawks defeated No. 2 Rhode Island, it was necessary for the Minutewomen to take away their confidence early on. When the offense for Saint Joseph’s looked to go through Laila Fair, UMass was able to shift over on the block and cut off either an insert pass to her last minute or contest a one-on-one drive. The defensive energy built off the success the Minutewomen had on offense. UMass valued each of its possessions rather than forcing fast breaks.

While clock control didn’t matter much in the opening quarter, the Minutewomen executed wisely on offense to force the Hawks to play tight defensively for long possessions. With under five to play in the first, Tayla Brugler played help defense way too high off a ball screen and Ber’Nyah Mayo danced through the defense then recognized Breen was open. Mayo threaded the needle and found Breen setting up an easy two right. Destiney Philoxy recognized how high up Saint Joseph’s was playing and blew by the tight defenders, taking the ball to the hoop through contact.

Brugler allowed Breen to catch the initial pass and rarely fronted her in the post but when Brugler’s length was met with a help defender, Breen couldn’t go one-on-one as easily. Other Minutewomen needed to knock down shots to meet the hot hand of Breen to prevent any comeback late in the game.

Taylor then ignited. Coming into the third, Taylor was 0-1 from deep so the first play of the third quarter, she drove. What could have been a tough 3-pointer turned into a fake and the Hawks were late to defend, not expecting UMass’ 3-point threat to pass one up.

Taylor continued to feed Breen’s hot hand but worked in her own play as well, maximizing the scoring threats the Minutewomen had in the second half. Taylor danced with quick handles for another layup then the play later threw to Breen who spun left then went back right for two more. Breen finished with 28 points on 13-for-19 shooting and pulled in nine rebounds.

Mayo wanted in on the offensive action and to close the third, had a shifty move to shake off her defender and excite the crowd as she switched back to her left for a layup with 45 seconds to play. Philoxy adjusted when the initial pass was taken and found Taylor for a crisp skip pass in front of the UMass bench who nailed the triple. Taylor held up three fingers and pointed at Philoxy who drew a bow in arrow motion for a on court celebration.

“I think our team is so selfless,” Taylor said. “We share the ball so well and I think that’s what gets our team going. People are jumping around, high fiving, chest bumps and I think that is motivation and gets us going.”

Tasked with the responsibility of battling on the boards, Angelique Ngalakulondi and Makennah White had to shut down second chance opportunities for Saint Joseph’s. UMass battled to win the boards 36-26 and only gave up eight second chance rebounds. The Hawks had 12 second chance points to the Minutewomen’s nine.

The Minutewomen shot 55 percent from the field, 44 percent from the field and had 44 points in the paint. White had 10 points on 5-for-6 shooting, four boards and two assists. Ngalakulondi had five points, six rebounds and one assist. Mayo finished with six points and Philoxy with seven.

UMass seeks revenge both against No. 1 Dayton but also the A-10 championship as it advances to a second consecutive championship Sunday. Tip off scheduled for 2 p.m.

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