We have reached the end of the line! Welcome to the final day of A10 Talk’s A-10 Women’s Basketball preview series, and welcome to the final day of the off-season!
Entering the 2021 Atlantic 10 Tournament, the UMass Minutewomen had posted a 7-5 conference record, and an 11-6 record overall. Respectable, yes, but hardly what anyone at the time would have considered a serious A-10 Title contender. Yeah, tell that to Saint Joseph’s, Fordham and Saint Louis. All three fell victim to UMass, en route to the Minutewomen’s first A-10 title game appearance in a generation. The “savage seven,” as they were dubbed, tore through the bracket, upsetting the #2 and #3 seeded teams in the conference before falling just a few minutes short of earning their first-ever A-10 Title and NCAA Tournament appearance. Makennah White, Sam Breen, Sydney Taylor, Destiney Philoxy, Ber’Nyah Mayo, Angelique Ngalakulondi, and Stefanie Kulesza – the only seven roster players available during the Tournament – proved that all it takes for a little “March magic” is the right mix of people.
Now eight months removed from their Cinderella run in Richmond, UMass is back, but apparently, still with something to prove. Despite returning all members of the “savage seven,” and making a few key roster additions as well, the Minutewomen were picked 6th in the Atlantic 10 preseason poll. They did not receive even one first place vote.
“You know, I look at it as not many of the coaches respect respecting what we’re doing here at the University of Massachusetts,” said Head Coach Tory Verdi. “I think that there’s a reason why we play conference games and you can bet that we’re going to go into each and every single game regardless if there was a preseason poll or not, and we’re going to play extremely hard, and we’re going to do everything that we can, you know, to come out with a win.”
Holding back a smile, you could tell that despite giving a rather diplomatic answer about where his team was predicted to finish, internally, that 6th place vote was motivating him. Finally, though, the competitor in him came out with a cheeky remark, and a slight smile.
“You know, as far as the poll comes out, and where we’re picked, I kind of, you know, laugh a little bit at where we were picked,” said Verdi. He quickly added, “but again, I don’t pay too much attention to that,” but the point was made. UMass felt disrespected by the conference, and it gave them something to prove.
The sentiment was echoed a few minutes later by the vocal leader of the Minutewomen roster, Destiney Philoxy.
“I mean, we saw it was number six yesterday. It didn’t really faze us because rankings and stuff don’t matter to us. You can still be number one and fail, still be number six and fail. So we just took that as motivation,” said Philoxy. “Going into season, like Coach Verdi said, with a chip on our shoulder and we just wanna do what we did last year, but even better I mean, number six, we’re not fazed by it. We know our actual number and we’re just gonna show everybody what it is.”
If this UMass team has half the drive and determination that they showed this past March, then they stand a very good chance at contending for an A-10 title this season. And more to the point, they’ve addressed some key areas of need this offseason too. While the Minutewomen return nearly all the pieces of their roster that led them to being the #1 offense in the conference a year ago, they knew the key focus of the offseason was improving at rebounding. They did just that by adding transfers Shavonne Smith from Towson and Michelle Pruitt from UTEP. Adding further depth to the roster, UMass brings in a true-freshman class of four (with Stefanie Kulesza also still being a freshman, enrolling early for the Spring Semester of 2021).
All of those new pieces will only add addition weapons to the UMass arsenal that already boasts a starting lineup of Sam Breen, Destiney Philoxy, Sydney Taylor, Ber’Nyah Mayo and Angelique Ngalakulondi, not to mention Makennah White as well. What the Minutewomen lacked in depth last March, they certainly will make up for this season. The trick will just be keeping everyone healthy and getting those newcomers into the mix.
It’s a roster that Tory Verdi thinks fans will be very excited about – as he’s just as excited to have fans back in the Mullins Center this year. Coach Verdi had one of the more memorable quotes from A-10 Media Days this year when he lamented playing in front of cardboard fans last year rather than real ones:
“It’s exciting to see real faces and real noise instead of, you know, cut outs, and last year during games, you know, it’s just, it’s quiet, and during intense moments, I turn around, I look and I see a cut out of a dog, and I just shake my head, I’m like what in the world is going on here?”
Fans, both human and canine alike, should also be excited about the non-conference schedule that Coach Verdi has put together – one that gives UMass the possibility of contending for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament in March. Among the competition includes a home game against a Boston College that UMass narrowly lost to last fall, as well as a road game against Providence, and games in the Gulf Coast Showcase against South Dakota State, and possibly UCLA.
The pieces are certainly falling into place for this to be a special season in Amherst. The only question that remains is whether last year a flash in the pan or whether it was a key steppingstone in the development of this program.
“You know, it’s one step at a time. It’s one game at a time,” said Coach Verdi. “You can’t look [ahead to] the championship: all the games that we play this year, each and every single day, each and every single practice prepares us to do something special at the end of the season. And so, we got to just come ready to go and, and we got to prepare and we got to win the day and once you start winning the day, then it prepares you to win those championships.”