Departures, injuries impacting UMass women’s basketball team

  • Ber'Nyah Mayo (23) and the UMass women’s basketball team welcome Saint Louis to the Mullins Center on Saturday at noon. CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS

Staff Writer 
Published: 2/4/2022 9:58:23 PM
Modified: 2/4/2022 9:56:54 PM

Things just got a lot more interesting for the UMass women’s basketball team. 

Guard Shavonne Smith, who was one of a very select group of players who saw semi-regular time on the court behind the team’s regulars, is no longer with the program, head coach Tory Verdi announced during this week’s media session. Verdi disclosed that Smith’s departure was a “team matter,” but no matter what the reason, it’s a sudden and unfortunate loss for the Minutewomen, who have already been riding a short bench all season. 

To make matters worse, freshman Stefanie Kulesza, who was finally starting to see regular minutes off the bench and getting into a groove, broke a bone in her hand and will undergo surgery on Feb. 9, taking her out of the lineup for the immediate future. Verdi is hopeful that she’ll return in time for the end of conference season and Atlantic 10 tournament play, but it’s brutal timing for the Minutewomen.

UMass (16-5, 4-3) hosts Saint Louis (6-12, 2-4) on Saturday at noon at the Mullins Center.

Verdi recently called February a sink-or-swim month, and now it certainly feels like a do-or-die time for the Minutewomen. With two of their most utilized bench players gone, Verdi will have to look further down the roster to fill those gaps. It’s likely that freshman Alexzeya Brooks could see more substantial playing time, as could fellow first-year Damoni Tucker. Ber’Nyah Mayo complimented both this week.

“Alexzeya Brooks and Damoni, every day in practice is challenging us and (we’re) just working on them, getting them better every day,” Mayo said. “It’s a growing process and we’ve been at this all year with them, given that they’re freshmen, so when a time comes and they are put in a game I truly believe they will be ready.” 

But whether or not Brooks or Tucker see the hardwood, Verdi has shown this season that he prefers to let his starters play the majority of the games, relying on his reserve players more sparingly. That obviously will vary from game to game, and Verdi did suggest that we may see some new players getting a little more playing time. This situation may also see players moved around the court in different formations to attempt to account for the lack of guard depth.

“I think that [Brooks] has had a really good week, (we’re) trying to grow her. When injuries occur, it’s next person up,” Verdi said. “We may be creative, we may move Sam Breen to the three a little bit and see what that looks like. Nothing’s gonna change, but you may see some players get a little bit more time than they have in the past.”

Regardless of who’s on the court, the end goal hasn’t changed for the Minutewomen, and now more than ever they need to continue racking up A-10 wins. After falling to Rhode Island twice and Dayton, UMass fell out of the USA Today coach’s rankings after they had received votes in three consecutive weeks; Rhode Island got six votes in the most recent iteration. UMass will need every win they can muster as they march toward the A-10 tournament. 

“(I’m) super excited about our energy and our focus, and looking forward to playing this game against Saint Louis. They lost to Rhode Island (on Wednesday), a really close battle the entire way. So we expect a dogfight,” Verdi said. “We have to have a sense of urgency as we did against St. Joe’s.” 

The Minutewomen will need to keep an extra close eye on Saint Louis’ Ciaja Harbison and the towering Brooke Flowers, who could cause havoc if UMass doesn’t keep them contained. Verdi seemed confident in his team’s ability to handle Flowers, whether she was matched up against Angelique Ngalakulondi or Makennah White; Verdi specifically said he thinks that White is more skilled than Flowers, despite Flowers’ height. That said, he recognized that Harbison is one of the more talented players in the A-10 right now and could prove to be a challenge. 

“We’ve got to do a great job of containing their dribble penetration and I think Harbison is probably one of the best ball guards in the A-10. She’s ultra-aggressive and she gets downhill and she attacks the basket and gets teams in rotation,” Verdi said. “She does a lot for the team. She makes them go and we got to do a great job on her.”


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