Harvard sends UMass to bed, Minutewomen fall 89-87 in WNIT

UMass ends its 2022-23 season with heartbreak

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Dylan Nguyen / Daily Collegian

By Lulu Kesin, Sports Editor

In March, energy and composure are arguably two cornerstones to a quality late season run. In a loud, amped Mullins Center arena with fans cheering for just about everything to go against Harvard, the Crimson never folded.

They started with energy and closed with composure. After taking a gut punch in November on their own court, Harvard came back at the Massachusetts women’s basketball team in the second round of the WNIT, ending UMass’ season with a heartbreaking two point loss, 89-87.

Head coach Tory Verdi knew that he had no timeouts left but there was still a play in mind once a 50 percent trip at the foul line put the ball back to UMass with 13 seconds to work with. Even in complete chaos and transition basketball, the Crimson managed to lock down sharpshooter Sydney Taylor. It was supposed to be a dribble hand off to an on ball screen for a 3-pointer or turn the corner, but Taylor didn’t have the look. Destiney Philoxy had the ball back in her hands and just tried to make something happen.

She heaved a quality look with seconds to go but fell into her bench empty handed, laying back as her season, and her career as a Minutewomen, came to a final close.

“Huge right, just tremendous growth,” Carrie Moore said of Harvard’s control late in the game. “I don’t know if we are winning that game if we play them here, in this moment, when we played them the last time we played them. [In November, UMass] had the experience, I told our group, ‘we’ve worked for this moment, we are much more experienced now’ … I just wanted for them to show the work and the growth that we have talked about all season long. And finishing games, we did that.”

What put the Minutewomen in position to tie the game or take a lead was a late resurgence in the latter halves, after Harvard did just about everything right early.

Down nine with a little under six to play, Makennah White stepped up to the foul line after drawing the call on her textbook turnaround jumper. White sank both free throws, cutting it to seven before a layup miss on the other end immediately gave the Minutewomen another chance. Ber’Nyah Mayo collected, she found Sam Breen on the kick out and her triple dropped, as did her body when she screamed “yeah baby,” in celebration. It was a ball game in Amherst, Mass., late in the fourth, a place UMass has taken teams all year.

Moore’s recognition on her teams maturity out weighed any good the Minutewomen could do in the final five minutes, with near perfect basketball coming from Harvard in and outside of the paint. All game long, the Crimson shot high numbers from 3-point territory so signs pointed to a dependency from beyond the arc in the final minutes to stretch their lead. Ultimately three simple layups on different trips down the court was enough to close things out.

Taylor’s layup with 3:11 to go tied things at 80, but Elena Rodriguez wasted no time on the other end, scoring a layup to put the UMass fans back in their seats. Four perfect free throws split by both White and Mayo had the lead back in the hands of the Minutewomen but coming out of a Harvard timeout, Rodriguez scored her 16th point of the night for another tie. Mayo went 50 percent on her trip to the charity stripe and Harmoni Turner reclaimed the lead with a layup, before drawing a charge on Mayo 12 seconds later to send the junior floor general to the bench for the night with her fifth foul.

UMass had no choice but to play the foul game. Breen’s layup on her own offensive rebound with 14 seconds left was only enough to be down one, giving the Crimson more chances from the line to close things out.

“Its tough when your journey just ends abruptly but you have to give Harvard credit, I thought [it] came out with a sense of urgency here tonight, especially in the first half,” UMass coach Tory Verdi said. “I thought that we adjusted at half time, we did a better job on both sides of the ball but they made a lot of shots and it’s really hard to win games when you give up 89 points.”

Harvard started the game shooting 6-for-10 from downtown. The Crimson shot 66.7 percent from the field and held a four point lead after the opening 10 minutes. The lead ballooned when five more 3-pointers dropped before halftime, missing just one from behind the arc in the second quarter.

“We’ve been playing really well recently, our offense is firing on all cylinders, our shooters are shooting with confidence and we are really executing things … I think our players did a really nice job of moving the ball, finding the extra pass and being shot ready,” Moore said of Harvard.

Verdi’s defense was discombobulated, with what he described as a major lack of communication. First, some players switched screens while others hedged hard. Then once the plan was to hedge hard and not switch, there was still a lack of consistency for all five players on UMass.

“I told them they needed to show up and play defense,” Verdi said of his halftime talk. “For whatever reason, we didn’t have a sense of urgency to defend, and that was our third key to win this game, ‘have a sense of urgency to defend and take pride in playing one on one defense,’ we were breaking down left and right.”

In the season ending loss, there were many bright spots to reflect upon. White went a mature and critical 6-for-6 in the fourth, grabbing applause from her senior teammates post game.

“What I liked the most today was [White’s] energy … second half she came off explosive, ready, and that is the Makennah we need and we are going to see next year, she gave us what we needed,” Philoxy said of the post player.

Philoxy ended her career at UMass with a 16 point night and Breen finished the way she was known in Mullins, the double-double Queen. She had 14 points and 11 rebounds. Taylor led the way with 21 points on 50 percent from the 3-point line and Mayo added 15.

For Verdi and the Minutewomen, the future will look different without the duo of Philoxy and Breen. But what exactly that looks like, “I’m always looking for ways to improve our team, you can bet that not a day goes by that I’m not thinking about that, or my staff, so when we do improve it, we’ll let you know,” Verdi said with a smile, before thanking media one final time this season.

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