Kesin: Seven games, six straight wins, let’s break it down

Minutemen finish November the way it started

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Kayla Wong/Daily Collegian (2022)

By Lulu Kesin , Sports Editor

Tory Verdi made it clear following the win against Central Connecticut State University on Nov. 7 that he didn’t want the Massachusetts women’s basketball team to be playing its best basketball right now. Not in November, not this soon.

Peaks and valleys are rather natural in as long of a season as the Minutewomen, and a hot non-conference win streak like the one UMass (7-1) is currently riding in some ways is to be expected. However, when Yale (4-4) came to Amherst on Wednesday night, it was clear there is still a ton of work to be done. The Minutewomen played ugly basketball at times against the Bulldogs. Easy transition layups went uncontested, bunny baskets missed, 23 turnovers and slow defense resulting in cheap fouls. The 72-57 final score wasn’t representative of the performance UMass put on.

In some ways, its promising that the Minutewomen pulled out a double digit win all things considered but Yale’s defeat was met mostly at the hands of Sam Breen and Ber’Nyah Mayo alone. Take away Breen’s explosive double-double and Mayo’s crucial 21, and this was almost a brutal loss on home court.

What adds an extra layer of importance to this midweek contest is the before and the after Yale’s arrival. UMass just had arguably its most dominant showing since the Atlantic 10 tournament in the FIU Thanksgiving Classic and heads to Power 5 play this weekend. Missouri and Arizona State have a combined 11-2 record, which will likely be the weekend of quality basketball that both UMass fans and players circled on their calendars since the start of the season.

The thing is, the Minutewomen had an early test this season against Tennessee. The Lady Vols gave UMass an opportunity to hang and play with the big dogs of women’s basketball. Even with that being the second game of the year, the Minutewomen showed up.

To take that next step, they need to play well and potentially pull off a win this coming weekend.  We saw this a little bit in the games down in Florida, where UMass finally got over the hump and instead of fighting back late to come up short to big teams, it actually climbed back and stole the win. Drake was receiving national votes in the polls before UMass rocked its world in the fourth quarter, forcing overtime after being down as many as 10 in the third and ultimately preventing a single point to be scored in the entire extra minutes. Last year in the Thanksgiving Classic the Minutewomen fell to the then No. 13 Iowa State 76-71. The late game comeback showed the potential UMass may have but wasn’t enough to seal the deal.

A year later, the Minutewomen took home the trophy after defeating Drake and FIU, scoring a total 198 over the two games.

Verdi referenced a post tournament championship hangover lingering from Sunday night to Wednesday but was quick to make clear there are still no excuses for the way his team played against Yale.

If UMass wants to continue raising its glass ceiling, it needs to shatter by these unexpected big conference wins. Damage can be done in Arizona but not without cleaner, better basketball so let’s break that down.

The Minutewomen need to value the basketball. UMass is way too talented to have the number of turnovers they’ve had this season. Their set offense is productive but more times than not, they’ve struggled with basic insert passes and pick and roll’s result in dropped balls or missed connections. From guards to forwards, the entire roster of Minutewomen can and need to be better at taking care of the ball. When they face teams like Missouri or an Arizona State, capitalization on turnovers might be the difference between a win and a loss.

Forwards Angelique Ngalakulondi and Makennah White have alternated their side kick role with Breen down low since the start. White has been sidelined with an ankle injury following her big night against Lowell on Nov. 22 which tasked Laila Fair with coming off the bench. Prior to White’s injury, Fair was in the walking boot. White’s absence will be a massive loss for UMass this weekend if her injury doesn’t improve come game time but in the case that it doesn’t, Fair and Ngalakulondi must make up for White’s multifaceted offense. Verdi noted White can score with her back behind the basket or while facing, she even hit a 3-pointer against the River Hawks. With the height that Power 5 basketball typically has, the two other forwards will need to help Breen with scoring in the paint. Teams may expect Fair and Ngalakulondi to plant themselves under the basket for clean-up crew second chance moments so the two can value White’s short jumper if the opposing forwards sit back.

Sydney Taylor was off her 3-point game against the Lady Vols but still impacted the game in every other category, something Verdi has been waiting for her to do. Taylor will be a critical part of the weekend no matter if she’s hitting from the outside or not.

Missed lay ups are somewhat uncontrollable but also insanely controllable at the same time. The Tennessee game had multiple sequences of easy layups missed from UMass and in other games this year, that same trend was there. With PAC-12 and SEC competition, missed layups aren’t something the Minutewomen can afford.

The Tennessee game proved UMass is deserving of national attention. The Harvard game represented UMass’ improvements from last year in terms of comeback efforts, but Lowell and Yale’s poor performances aren’t anything to ignore.

In the month of November, UMass has played some quality basketball. But it’s made clear its expectations are beyond games like Maine, Yale or Lowell. If the Minutewomen are looking to prove anything this season — building off the Tennessee early test — this weekend is a great place to start.

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