UMass buckles down, defeats FIU to become Thanksgiving Classic Champions

Minutewomen hold off Panthers comeback attempt to extend their unbeaten streak to five games

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Dylan Nguyen / Daily Collegian

By Michael Araujo, Collegian Staff

The Massachusetts women’s basketball team fended off a ferocious Florida International University team and were named Thanksgiving Classic Champions in a 95-78 victory on Sunday.

The win marks the program’s first non-conference tournament win in 17 years.

“It’s great whenever you win a championship regardless if it’s a holiday tournament or not,” head coach Tory Verdi said. “We came down here seven years ago, my first season, and we lost both games. Now here we are seven years later and we’re winning the championship. It just goes to show you the growth and development of our program and the maturation process of our players.”

The Minutewomen (6-1) looked almost unstoppable in the first quarter when they ripped off a 20-0 run to start the game. Laila Fair scored her first points donning the maroon-and-white, catching a pass from Ber’Nyah Mayo in transition and converting the left-handed layup. Fair totaled five points on 2-2 shooting, while also grabbing two rebounds and getting two blocks.

The Panthers (2-3) looked lifeless and had no answer as they desperately searched for a spark as all 10 of their active players saw the court in the first quarter.

After leading by 21 points, the Minutewomen were gashed by the Panthers offense who cut the lead to four in a roller coaster first half. FIU’s Sariana Rodriguez Camacho and Sifa Joyeuse combined for 21 points in the second frame.

The two players shot the ball effectively and efficiently, as they had eight of FIU’s 11 made field goals in the quarter, shooting at an 80 percent clip. Rodriguez Camacho was on fire from 3-point range, going four-of-five from beyond the arc.

“We didn’t locate [Rodriguez Camacho] who had 17 points in the first half and allowed her some really good looks at the basket and act on some [3-pointers],” Verdi said. “We broke down at times during the second period. We talked about it at halftime and our players came out with a sense of urgency right off the bat and buckled down.”

UMass was no nonsense and all business in the second half as the veterans took the game over and maintained a comfortable double-digit lead. Sam Breen and Sydney Taylor were pillars for the team’s success, combining for 51 points. Breen had her third double-double of the year with 11 rebounds, while Taylor tied her career-high with nine rebounds.

Destiney Philoxy was the heart and soul of the team on Sunday and was instrumental in leading the team to victory. Philoxy was constantly pushing the pace and driving the ball into the teeth of the defense, adjusting mid-air and converting acrobatic layups possession after possession.

On one play during the second half, Philoxy dribbled coast-to-coast, lowered her shoulder and drove past her defender to the rim with her left hand before the defense was set. Going up with one hand, Philoxy sunk the layup through contact for an old-fashioned three-point play. She totaled 18 points, eight assists, four rebounds and two steals.

“ [Philoxy] was the catalyst for us,” Verdi said. “She handled [FIU’s] pressure, did a great job of attacking, creating for herself and others, and did a nice job for us down the stretch.”

Verdi has stressed the importance of the team maintaining consistency. The Minutewomen have been plagued by mistakes recently, yet have still managed to pull out double-digit wins against Lowell, Drake and now FIU. One such mistake was UMass losing the turnover battle today, committing 18 to the Panthers’ 14. It also allowed 19 offensive rebounds, which translated to 20 second chance points for FIU. The Minutewomen’s high-powered offense has allowed them to make mistakes and still be successful, but it’s not a sustainable recipe for success.

“For whatever reason, we started to get a little unsure and they turned us over,” Verdi said. “We had 11 turnovers in the first half. We got to value the ball better… Our turnovers led to their points. We gave up offensive rebounds and second chance points.”

UMass extended its winning streak to five games in a row, and went 4-0 on its road trip. It now returns home where it will battle Yale on Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the Mullins Center.

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