A lot to like about a historic UMass women’s basketball season

  • Notre Dame forward Maddy Westbeld, left, guards against Massachusetts forward Sam Breen, right, in the first half of a first-round game in the NCAA women's college basketball tournament Saturday in Norman, Okla.  AP

Staff Writer 
Published: 3/21/2022 8:29:08 PM
Modified: 3/21/2022 8:28:19 PM

It was a year to remember for the UMass women’s basketball team. Though the Minutewomen weren’t able to take down No. 5 Notre Dame in their NCAA Tournament opening round game on Saturday in Norman, Okla., they accomplished a lot in a record-breaking season: 26 wins, the most in program history, their first Atlantic-10 Player of the Year in Sam Breen, their first ever A-10 championship, and their first trip to the NCAA Tournament in 24 years.

To conclude that history-making season with a trip to the Big Dance is something that UMass players will remember for the rest of their lives. 

“I grew up watching this tournament with my family, and it's just a dream to be in it, win or lose,” UMass guard Sydney Taylor said. “The stage is so big, there's so many people watching. I'm just so grateful for the experience, and I just can't wait to be back here.” 

A few odds and ends as we wrap up our women’s basketball coverage for the season: 

SUSTAINED SUCCESS

This year’s team was a result of six years worth of work. But don’t look at this UMass squad as a one-hit wonder. A-10 Player of the Year Sam Breen, sharp-shooter Sydney Taylor, bigs Angelique Ngalakolundi and Makennah White, sophomore sensation Ber’Nyah Mayo – all should be back next season. Taylor, Breen, and Verdi were all confident in the postgame press conference that the Minutewomen would be back in the NCAA tournament soon, and all signs point to that being true. 

The only major question mark from this year’s starting five is whether or not Destiney Philoxy decides to use her COVID year. Though technically a senior, Philoxy has another year of eligibility, should she choose to use it. She hasn’t publicly made that decision just yet, but even if she doesn’t return, Mayo would be a more than capable replacement to run the offense in her stead. Though the team will have to look hard to find somebody as good at drawing charges as Philoxy. 

“As far as Destiny and the evolution of who she is, as a player and as a person, I could write a book on it,” Verdi said on his senior guard. “She's one of the main cornerstones to our program, there's no question about it. When we recruited her, we were trying to bring some athleticism to our program. We knew that she was dynamic….(She) became a leader, and she did a great job of holding her teammates accountable because she knew what we needed to do in order to win a championship.” 

UP AND COMERS

What will be worth watching next season is who we see off the bench for the Minutewomen.

One of UMass’ most reliable bench player is White. The sophomore began the year as a starter before Ngalakulondi replaced her midway through the year. Despite that, White has been an irreplaceable member of the Minutewomen, and could very well earn a starting role back next season. She’s one of Massachusetts’ go-to rebounders, grabbing a seasons-best 10 boards against Saint Louis and collecting nine rebounds in multiple contests; she also hit double-digits in scoring nine times throughout the season, and two of those occasions came in the A-10 tournament.

Freshman Stefanie Kulesza saw the floor a good amount of the season, though her minutes were sparse. She was on the floor for seven consecutive contests toward the end of the year before a hand injury sidelined her until the NCAA tournament. She may be more utilized next season, now with a full season of experience under her belt. She played a season-high 21 minutes in her last game before her injury against Saint Joseph’s, where she grabbed three boards and four points. 

Alexzeya Brooks also got some minutes after Kulesza’s injury, another freshman who showcased her skills with the more minutes she got. Brooks was one of Verdi’s go-to bench players (after White) in the latter half of the season. She posted a season-high 11 points in UMass’ win against George Mason, and saw time in both the A-10 championship game (11 minutes) and the NCAA tournament contest against Notre Dame (six minutes).

The Fighting Irish proved they were a team to be reckoned with on Monday. After getting past UMass 89-78 in the opening round Saturday, they trounced fourth-seeded Oklahoma on its home floor, 108-64, to reach the Sweet 16.

LOOKING AHEAD 

Though we don’t yet know the Minutewomen’s schedule for the 2022-23 season, UMass fans will want to make sure they have tickets to some of the earlier games of the season. After Breen and Philoxy both hit their 1,000 point milestones in the 2021-22 season, Taylor is hovering at 933 career points after collecting 526 points this past season. She should hit her 1K milestone relatively quickly for UMass next year.


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