UMass plays short, falls short 71-66 to Missouri

Minutewomen without Sydney Taylor and Makennah White in the loss

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Kayla Wong / Daily Collegian

By Lulu Kesin, Sports Editor

When Stefanie Kulesza drilled a 3-pointer with just over four minutes to play in the game, cutting the deficit to six, the Massachusetts women’s basketball bench electrified.

Kulesza then scored a lay-up on a pass from Angelique Ngalakulondi three minutes after, then another two points 42 seconds later. The sequence was representative of what UMass (8-2) needed on Saturday night. Big plays off the bench.

But what followed Kulesza’s 3-pointer and sequence of layups was Lauren Hansen. Her late 3-point play was indicative of all the punishing Missouri did from behind the arc. Just 1:29 left, a scrappy Minutewomen team fighting back, Hansen made it 67-59.

UMass was without Sydney Taylor on Saturday and the Tigers (8-1) capitalized on the loss of its 3-point threat by finding 3-point success of their own all game. They shot 47 percent on the night and Hansen had six of her own as Missouri closed off a relentless UMass team, taking the 71-66 win.

“Really proud of my team’s effort,” head coach Tory Verdi said. “Even though we didn’t win today’s game, we still played UMass basketball. I am extremely proud of our team, I thought some people stepped up here today, not having Syd hurt us obviously as far as execution, timing, chemistry, her production offensively … I thought that our team did a great job of trying to fight through and did everything possible to continue to [play].”

The first quarter was all Minutewomen, as Ber’Nyah Mayo once again lifted UMass’ energy on both ends, finding success in the lane while making big plays on defense as well. Mayo drove hard off a screen to the left side, stopping for the floater but when it rimmed out, she grabbed her own board to score the easier two. She drew a foul on the other end shortly after, before her coast-to-coast layup added to the 8-0 early Minutewomen run. Mayo finished with nine points, four rebounds and four steals.

Alexzeya Brooks had her first career start in place of Taylor and chipped into the early lead for UMass with a deep two pointer. Brooks’ minutes have increased since last year with the Atlantic 10 championship proving her capabilities off the bench according to Verdi. Kristin Williams first saw the floor in a UMass jersey against Tennessee, with quality minutes coming against both ASU and the Tigers on Saturday. Williams played 11 minutes, Brooks saw 18 and Kulesza played 10, with seven points and two rebounds in the limited minutes.

“I’ve been saying this all along, we are trying to develop our bench,” Verdi said. “We know we need more depth, and those guys need more experience, so I am hoping with the minutes played yesterday and today gives them some confidence.”

Saturday marked the fifth straight game Makennah White was sidelined for UMass, giving sophomore transfer Laila Fair heavy minutes off the bench. Fair connected well with Sam Breen from the get-go, cutting base line to receive the layup feed from Breen before securing back-to-back blocks on a sequence a minute later. To top off the effort by Fair on both ends, she got out to strongly contest and alter a 3-point attempt from Missouri as the shot clock winded. The Tigers fed off open attempts from downtown but Fair’s length on the defensive end added a layer of difficulty to overcome. Fair averages two blocks per game and Saturday was no different. She added just four points in the loss, two of which came just shortly after that sequence, when Destiney Philoxy missed a layup and Fair was there for the clean-up crew second chance points.

Breen’s dish to Fair was far from her only highlight of the night, as Breen contributed 19 solid points in the loss. In the same sequence that Fair stood out, Breen caught the ball at the right elbow of the 3-point line before driving to the lane. The shot clock winding and Breen off balance, she hit a near one legged jumper to grab her 10th point of the game. The graduate captain had two triples, seven rebounds, and three assists to go with her 19 points.

When it rains it pours and as the Tigers 3-point success heated up, the Minutewomen’s went cold. They only saw five shots from downtown connect, making it hard to fight when the defensive energy was there, but going shot for shot with two pointers where Missouri was grabbing three. UMass shot 64 percent from the field, as its paint play outmatched the Tigers inside game. The Minutewomen had 38 points in the paint to the Missouri’s 14.

UMass won the turnover battle, a point of emphasis to clean up from the last few games,  losing the ball a total of seven times to Missouri’s 18 and stealing it 11 times from the Tigers. What Verdi attributed to fatigue from back-to-back games, lengthy travel and a game on Wednesday was the battle on the boards. The Minutewomen only grabbed 33 boards compared to Missouri’s 42. Despite the uncharacteristic loss in the rebounding column, Verdi believed Minutewomen basketball was still present.

“I’m leaving Arizona happy, we went 4-1 in eight days and played some really good basketball,” Verdi said.

UMass now has time to rest following the back-to-back Power 5 weekend as the Minutewomen welcome Columbia to Amherst on Saturday Dec. 10. Tipoff is scheduled for 12 p.m.

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