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NCAA WOMEN'S BASKETBALL TOURNAMENT

NCAA Tournament: Can UMass play spoiler? Minutewomen earn No. 12 seed, will face Notre Dame in first round

For Sam Breen and the UMass women's basketball team, the program's first Atlantic 10 Tournament champion resulted in their first NCAA berth since 1998.Chris Szagola/Associated Press

After a week of wondering, the UMass women’s basketball team has an opponent for the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

The Atlantic 10 Conference champion Minutewomen (26-6), a No. 12 seed, play No. 5 seed Notre Dame (22-8) on Saturday in Norman, Okla. (time TBA).

“It was definitely a little suspenseful, checking our phones and the brackets every day trying to see who we’re going to play and where we’re going,” UMass junior guard Sydney Taylor said. “It’s good to see who we’re playing, finally, and we can start scouting and hopefully get the win.”

Seeded third in the A-10 tournament, the Minutewomen knocked off top-seeded Dayton in the championship game last Sunday. Running the A-10 gamut resulted in the program’s first conference tournament title. UMass’s previous two NCAA Tournament appearances, both first-round exits, were at-large bids in 1996 and 1998. UMass is led by a veteran group including A-10 Player of the Year Sam Breen (16.9 points, 10.3 rebounds), Taylor (15.8 points) and Destiney Philoxy (11 points, 5.7 assists).

Notre Dame, ranked 22nd in the most recent AP Top 25 poll, finished fourth in the ACC. Freshmen Olivia Miles (13.7 points, 5.5 rebounds, 7.2 assists) and Sonia Citron (11.6 points) turned in strong seasons, as did Maya Dodson (12.4 points, 7.6 rebounds) and Maddy Westbeld (11.5 points).

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Taylor knows Dodson from their hometown, Huntington, N.Y. Their mothers are close friends. Taylor also played against a few other Irish players at high school and AAU tournaments.

Sydney Taylor and the Minutewomen are set to meet Notre Dame.Chris Szagola/Associated Press

Following the A-10 title game, sixth-year UMass coach Tory Verdi received congratulations from “everybody I crossed paths with,” including Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico, UConn assistant Chris Daly, and Bonnie Henrickson — Verdi’s mentor during his assistant coaching days at Kansas. After taking 48 hours for the team and him to “enjoy the moment,” they began practicing again Wednesday.

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Verdi never let a shade of doubt creep in, not after a challenging first year, certainly not after falling in the A-10 title game last season.

“I was never going to let somebody tell me it wasn’t going to happen,” Verdi said. “Somehow, some way we were going to get it done and we found a way.”

No matter who the opponent, Verdi and his staff had a plan in place for the week leading up to the announcement.

“The preparation part of it, we’ll be right there,” Verdi said. “Strategically, I will have phone calls with my mentors in the game because all of them have played for championships.”

UMass and Notre Dame had two common opponents, Boston College and Fordham. UMass lost to BC in their lone meeting. Notre Dame and BC split. UMass beat Fordham in the regular season and A-10 Tournament. Notre Dame also beat Fordham.

Massachusetts head coach Troy Verdi led the way to the program’s first-ever conference tournament title.Chris Szagola/Associated Press

Hearing the Minutewomen announced during the selection show on ESPN was a “surreal moment,” Taylor said.

“We were so excited to see our name on the board, just blessed, honestly, regardless of who we’re playing,” Taylor said. “We’re just ready to get out there.”