Postseason play has arrived for local Division 1 women’s basketball programs as Boston College and UMass ready for their respective conference tournaments this week with championship aspirations.
The eighth-seeded Eagles (19-10, 10-8 Atlantic Coast Conference) travel to the Greensboro Coliseum in North Carolina for the 15-team ACC tournament, opening up on Thursday, March 3 against ninth-seeded Florida State at 2 p.m. With a strong five-member senior class and a pair of standout freshman starters under fourth-year coach Joanna Bernabei-McNamee, BC looks to make an impact in a loaded field that includes six AP Top 25 teams.
“As we say, five together is one on the court, and if everyone is playing to the best of their individual ability, I don’t think there is much of a limit,” Bernabei-McNamee said. “I think we can be a really, really good ACC team and go on to the NCAA Tournament and really make some noise there.”
BC most recently participated in the NCAA Tournament in 2006, the last of a seven-appearance in eight-year stretch from 1999-2006. BC last won a conference tournament – as a member of the Big East – in 2004. The program’s six other appearances were at-large bids. BC reached the ACC semifinals in Bernabei-McNamee’s second season in 2019-20 and hoped for an at-large bid before the tournament was canceled because of the pandemic. Last year, BC won its first-round ACC tournament game before losing in the quarterfinals.
This year, BC went 9-2 in non-conference play. Wins over then-No. 17 Notre Dame, Miami, and Duke highlighted league play. Seniors Cameron Swartz (16.1 points per game) and two-time All-ACC forward Taylor Soule (15.3) make up the ACC’s top scoring duo. Maria Gakdeng (averaging 8.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, 2.1 blocks) broke the program’s record for blocked shots by a freshman and classmate Ally VanTimmeren, a mid-year enrollee last season, fills a strong role in BC’s starting five.
“I think right now we have a mature, older team that knows what it takes to win big games,” Soule said. “It’s always good to go out on the road, compete and see where we match up.”
“We click very well off the court and that really does help a lot,” Swartz added. “It’s about coming in with intensity, being ready to play and being engaged the whole time.”
The third-seeded Minutewomen (23-6, 11-4 Atlantic 10) travel to Wilmington, Del. for the A-10 tournament and received a double-bye. UMass plays the winner of Fordham and Saint Louis/George Mason on Friday evening at 7:30 p.m.
This year’s Minutewomen have already produced a program-record win total, but sixth-year coach Tory Verdi told reporters last week, “I think we can play better than we have.”
A short-handed Minutewomen roster reached the conference championship last year on the backs of who later became known as “The Savage Seven.” Graduate student Sam Breen, senior Destiney Philoxy, juniors Sydney Taylor and Angelique Ngalakulondi, sophomores Makennah White and Ber’Nyah Mayo, and freshman Stefanie Kulesza, who enrolled midway through last season, are all back now with an extra year’s experience.
The seventh seed in last season’s tournament, the Minutewomen knocked off the No. 10, No. 2, and No. 3 seeds before falling to fifth-seeded VCU, 81-69, in the championship game. UMass has twice made the NCAA Tournament, in 1996 and 1998, both as at-large bids. The Minutewomen have yet to win a postseason conference tournament.
“They work hard, are hungry, and they want to do something special,” Verdi said. “Hopefully we can finish off and win a championship.”
Breen, the A-10 Player of the Year and a semifinalist for the Becky Hammon Mid-Major Player of the Year Award, leads the team in scoring (16.4 points per game) and rebounding (10.5). Taylor (15.9) and Philoxy (11.5) round out a trio of Minutewomen scoring in double figures.
“We made it to the final last year and didn’t win it. We want to get back there,” Breen said. “I think we can win it all if we play how we know we can. To do that, we just really have to bond over these next few days, play together, and do the little things.”
Even if they don’t win their respective conference crowns, both teams have chances for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. All Division women’s college basketball teams will learn their tournament fate during the selection show on Sunday, March 13.
Seven Massachusetts teams qualify for the Division 3 tournament
Although the fifth-seeded Bates won its first NESCAC tournament, Amherst and Tufts will still play in the NCAA Division III Tournament. First-round play for the seven Massachusetts qualifiers begins Friday.
Tufts (20-4) will host a regional at Cousens Gymnasium and plays Clarks Summit (23-4) in the first round. Amherst (21-3) will host, too, and tips off tournament play against SUNY Poly (20-6).
NEWMAC champion Smith (23-2) hosts a regional and plays MASCAC champion Framingham State (22-3). GNAC champion (25-1) Emmanuel plays Brooklyn (21-3) at the Smith regional. Babson (19-7) earned an at-large bid and plays SUNY New Paltz at a regional hosted by Scranton (Pa.) University. At-large bid Springfield (22-4) plays Messiah (23-3) in Ithaca, N.Y.