UMass’ roller coaster defensive effort leads to 78-89 loss in NCAA Tournament

UMass’ first taste of the NCAA Tournament in over 24 years ends in a first round defeat


Chris Tucci / UMass Athletics

By Michael Araujo , Collegian Staff

The Massachusetts women’s basketball team’s historic 2021-2022 season came to an end on Saturday night. No. 5 Notre Dame eliminated No. 12 UMass 78-89 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

The Minutewomen — having not played a game in nearly two weeks — were visibly shell-shocked by the Fighting Irish’s highly efficient offense. In its dazed state, UMass was crucified by Notre Dame’s playmakers and the team’s overall ability to distribute the ball to the open shooter each and every time down the floor. The Fighting Irish thrived by pushing the ball in transition and getting easy layups — something UMass has been historically successful at defending this season.

By the end of the first quarter, the Minutewomen were trailing 17-32. Notre Dame had tallied seven assists on a 12-for-19 shooting clip, compared to only three assists from UMass on 6-for-15 shooting.

“I feel like it was more defensively than offensively,” Sam Breen said of what Notre Dame did in the first quarter to. “We were missing a lot of shots that we usually make but it’s not like we weren’t scoring at all. So it’s a big defensive thing. [Notre Dame was] definitely finding the open man … We were just a second late and [Notre Dame] did a really, really good job finishing shots.”

UMass shook off the nerves in the second quarter and stepped up its defense, scoring seven points off of the Fighting Irish’s six turnovers. Angelique Ngalakulondi forced perhaps the most important turnover, when she leaped to intercept an inbound pass with only four seconds remaining, then immediately found Sam Breen in stride who nailed the half-court 3-pointer to end the half. The steal gave the Minutewomen some much needed momentum and proved that if they wanted to beat the impressive Fighting Irish squad, they had to start by playing hard on the defensive end.

Stifling defense requires effective communication. That means talking to each other through a screen and establishing confidence high by knowing everyone on the floor is on the same page. While Ngalakulondi’s steal was a turning point, solid defense calls for more than just steals and forced turnovers. Down eight points to a Notre Dame team that is shooting lights out, UMass’ only chance at closing the gap was to get stops and keep its offense rolling.

Coming out of the locker room in the second half, UMass brought the high intensity, determined defense it delivered in its run to it’s Atlantic-10 conference title. On Notre Dame’s second offensive possession of the second half, the Minutewomen executed their defense to perfection, forcing a shot clock violation by jumping into passing lanes, helping on the weak side and getting hands into the faces of Notre Dame’s shooters.

UMass failed to keep its offense rolling, however, as Notre Dame responded by showcasing some stout defense of its own. Despite getting three offensive rebounds and four opportunities to score in a single possession, the Minutewomen did not get a bucket on offense.

The two teams would continue to trade defensive blows until Ngalakulondi gets the first points for either team nearly three minutes into the third quarter. During the scoreless stretch, UMass forced three turnovers and two missed shots, but lost one turnover and missed five shots.

Ber’Nyah Mayo was a big part of the team establishing an identity on defense. Down 11 points, Mayo made a heads-up play when she read the eyes of her opponent and picked off a pass intended for her defender before attacking the rim and getting the layup to fall through two defenders. Mayo finished with 12 points, five rebounds, five steals and zero turnovers.

Even with the defensive effort picking up, UMass’ offense couldn’t keep pace, as the team still trailed by eight heading into the final quarter of play.

The fourth quarter was when the wheels fell off the wagon. With UMass missing its first six shots, Notre Dame was able to go on a 12-2 run, foreseeably putting the game out of reach from the Minutewomen.

“I hope this was a great experience for [the players],” head coach Tory Verdi said. “We got a taste of what it’s like but we’re ready to take that next step. In order to move on, you’ve gotta do all those little things… For whatever reason, we weren’t locked in to doing all those little things for forty minutes.”

Michael Araujo can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @araujo_michael_.