Tory Verdi looked around the film room, saw just seven healthy players, and decided to break the tension.
“Spectacular Seven?” the UMass women’s basketball coach asked.
“We were like, ‘Ew, no,’ ” point guard Destiney Philoxy remembered.
Ber’Nyah Mayo threw out something fiercer: “Savage Seven.”
“We were like, ‘Oh that’s tough,’ ” Philoxy said.
With a new nickname in tow, UMass embarked on a run to the Atlantic 10 title game last winter with a short rotation. This year, the fully loaded Minutewomen (6-0) have even higher expectations.
“Our goal is just to win it all,” said Philoxy, a senior. “We have the talent. We have the team. Why not?”
UMass entered last winter’s A10 tournament as the seventh seed. In a stretch of four days, the Minutewomen knocked off the 10th, second, and third seeds before falling to fifth-seeded VCU, 81-69, in the championship.
UMass has made the NCAA Tournament twice, in 1996 and 1998, which was before any players on the current roster were born.
“Obviously it’s going to be a journey,” said Verdi, who is in his sixth season at UMass and was a member of coaching staffs for NCAA Tournament runs at Kansas and Nebraska. “It’s going to be a roller coaster ride. It’s not play for a championship or bust, but our goal is to win a championship.”
All of the Savage Seven are back, with a motto of “be different.” They are Philoxy, graduate student Sam Breen, juniors Sydney Taylor and Angelique Ngalakulondi, sophomores Makennah White and Mayo, and freshman Stefanie Kulesza, who enrolled last winter.
With a rotation bolstered by additions via the transfer portal — Shavonne Smith (Towson) and Michelle Pruitt (UTEP/Stetson), whom Philoxy calls “the missing pieces to the puzzle” — UMass is proving to be a matchup nightmare.
“We have players that can score the basketball at all positions,” Verdi said. “There’s not one particular position where we don’t have strength.”
The Minutewomen are the last undefeated Division 1 Massachusetts women’s basketball team, having knocked off South Dakota State, 81-63, Friday in the Gulf Coast Showcase tournament in Estero, Fla. Next up Saturday is Kent State, which upset No. 19 UCLA. These are good measuring-stick games.
Breen earned All-Conference first-team honors last year. Philoxy was named to the All-Conference second team and All-Defensive Team. Those two have picked up where they left off. Breen is averaging 16.2 points and 11.2 rebounds; Philoxy, 5.5 assists and 3.8 rebounds.
Taylor leads the team in scoring at 20.0 points per game, and Ngalakulondi, averaging 11.2 points and 7.2 rebounds, is a strong presence off the bench.
Individual accolades aside, there’s a more important team goal looming for the Minutewomen, who were picked to finish sixth in the 14-team A10 in the preseason poll.
“Regardless of where we were picked in the preseason, I think we have enough talent to win it,” Verdi said.
UMass got a taste of tournament play during last winter’s run, winning two games in the Women’s National Invitation Tournament, but that’s not the goal. The program has never won a conference tournament, qualifying for the NCAAs with at-large berths.
“We’re all about breaking records,” Philoxy said. “UMass hasn’t won a ‘chip,’ to my knowledge, so we want to break that record.”
Little sister, big sister
Even though it’s her first season at Villanova without her older sister, Braintree’s Brianna Herlihy is a “big sister” to her teammates.
An injury redshirt season plus a blanket COVID-19 extra year of eligibility has the 6-foot graduate student in her sixth year with the Wildcats. Much has changed, on and off the court, since Herlihy enrolled in the fall of 2016.
“They have all new dorms and facilities,” she said. “It’s like, ‘This didn’t used to be here. This didn’t exist.’ I definitely feel like this is home, and it’s going to be weird moving away.”
Herlihy, whose sister Bridget played for Villanova before serving as a graduate assistant last year and is now playing overseas, took a major step last season, earning second-team All-Big East honors. After a summer spent honing her 3-point shot, she is averaging 10.8 points and 7.5 rebounds while shooting 50 percent from distance.
Herlihy, who majored in finance and international business, is working on her MBA and considering playing professionally overseas after college. But right now, she is focused on finishing her Villanova career strong.
“We have a lot of good teams in the Big East, like top 25 teams,” Herlihy said. “We’re hoping to get on the map in that sense.”
Bentley pulls rank
The first meeting of the season Tuesday between longtime Northeast-10 rivals Stonehill and Bentley was also a matchup between teams receiving votes in the Women’s Basketball Coaches’ Association Division 2 poll. No. 16 Bentley improved to 3-0 with a 62-51 victory over Stonehill (0-2), which was unranked but received votes in the poll.