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UMass women's basketball team looks to repeat as A-10 tournament champs

The UMass Amherst women's basketball team practices ahead of the 2023 Atlantic 10 tournament. UMass secured the No. 1 seed in the tournament.
UMass Athletics
The UMass Amherst women's basketball team practices ahead of the 2023 Atlantic 10 tournament. UMass secured the No. 1 seed in the tournament.

The UMass women's basketball team is scheduled to play George Mason University Friday morning in the quarterfinal round of the Atlantic 10 tournament in Wilmington, Delaware.

UMass comes into the tourney as the No. 1 seed for the first time in the team's history, after closing out the regular season with a conference-best record of 14-2, and 24-5 overall. It's the best record during coach Tory Verdi.

Hannah Bevis is a reporter with the Daily Hampshire Gazette and has been following the team all season.

Kari Njiiri, NEPM: Verdi has turned the team into a contender in his six seasons in Amherst, winning the A-10 championship last year. How has he managed to do this?

Hannah Bevis, Daily Hampshire Gazette: I think, for him, a lot of people doubted Tory Verdi when he came to Massachusetts and said he wanted to make them a contender. But honestly, I think he has really just put a lot of time and effort into letting everybody know — whether it's a player, whether it's a coaching staff, whether it's fans — that this is a place to be.

And talking to some of the players who have joined the team now over the course of his seven years in Amherst, they come here because they believe that he's an honest coach who talks to his players about, you know, "We're going to be very transparent with you." And he wants to win, and so do his players.

He looks very hard for people who are competitive and who want to play and who want to win and cares very much about his players as well. So I think he's done a really fantastic job in his time there at taking them from a team that nobody really knew anything about to a team that is in the national conversation.

One cannot talk about the Minutewomen long without mentioning Sam Breen, who just became the program's all-time leading scorer. The forward also earned the A-10 Player of the Year award for the second straight year, among other accolades.

Yeah, Sam Breen is just an incredible player for UMass. And it seems like we talk about Sam Breen all the time and it's always the same stuff: how consistent she is, she's a double-double machine, she picked up her first triple-double this year of her career. And it's so interesting because sometimes you can get lost in how good she is. It's just like, "Oh, you know, it doesn't seem like Sam's been doing that much in the game, but she's leading the team and she's got the most rebounds."

But she's just one piece of a very deep UMass team. And I think that's why they've gotten the No. 1 seed in the Atlantic 10 tournament this year.

Well, talk about the other players you expect to have an impact in this tourney.

I think all of their starters, for sure, are players who are going to have a pretty significant impact. Breen is one of those, Destiney Philoxy and Ber'Nyah Mayo are two very good distributors, in terms of moving the ball around the floor, seeing the floor very well. Bigs like Angelique Ngalakulondi, who's really starting to come into her own late. She's peaking at exactly the right time, which is very good news for UMass. Sydney Taylor, who I think a lot of people might know her more as a three-point shooter, but she has really rounded out her game and can score anywhere on the floor. She's not just going to shoot from behind the three-point arc. And she can rebound, play defense.

And also the player who's going to be first off the bench for UMass, Makennah White, could very easily be a starter. But on a team that runs sort of a very short bench in general, having somebody like White who can come off the bench and make an immediate impact — whether that's rebounding or putting up second-chance opportunities — is so important for them. And she's going to be, I think, a big part of their run this year.

What is the biggest challenge for the UMass women to repeat as A-10 champions?

I think, for them, it's not going to be getting inside their own head. They are a team that has dealt with some injuries this year, had some issues with chemistry earlier in the year. That has been less of an issue as the season has gone on. I think they had a little bit of an unexpected loss to St. Louis late and that was a little bit of a road bump. But they are playing, as Coach Verdi likes to say, their best basketball at, you know, the right time of year.

And I think, for UMass, what sometimes can happen is that they will play down to the level of their opponent and especially with the opponent that they're going to face [Friday] in George Mason. That's something that that team likes to do is make games a little bit messy, make them a little bit, you know, sloppy and get good teams to play down to where they're at. So that's a trap that UMass, I think, can't fall into to get past the first round.

But if they play the way they're capable of — and they have been for most of this season — I think that they should be a pretty good odds to win. And it's lucky for them too that the bracket that they're in, they're not going to have to face either Rhode Island or St. Louis, two teams that have given them problems this year, until they get to the championship game, assuming that one of those two teams would be their opponent. So that is also really good news for the Minutewomen.

Kari Njiiri is a senior reporter and longtime host and producer of "Jazz Safari," a musical journey through the jazz world and beyond, broadcast Saturday nights on NEPM Radio. He's also the local host of NPR’s "All Things Considered."
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