For most of the season, the UMass women’s basketball team embraced its underdog status. After proving their ability to play with Power 5 teams, garner Top 25 votes, and win the Atlantic 10 tournament, the Minutewomen head into the NCAA Tournament with an adjusted mind-set.
“I guess a lot of people say we’re the underdog, and I don’t really mind that,” junior guard Sydney Taylor said. “but I think we are at the same level [as Top 25 teams]. We’re playing at that level with them.”
The Minutewomen (26-6), a No. 12 seed, face Notre Dame (22-8), a No. 5 seed from the Atlantic Coast Conference, in the first round Saturday at 7:30 p.m. (ESPN2) in Norman, Okla.
“There are changes that we definitely want to be prepared with,” said sixth-year UMass coach Tory Verdi. “More importantly, they’ve got to be prepared for us too and take away our strengths.”
UMass won the Atlantic 10 tournament as the No. 3 seed, topping No. 1 seed Dayton in the final. Dayton later received an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament and beat DePaul in the First Four.
ESPN bracketologist Charlie Creme does not have this game on any sort of upset alert list. However, he said, UMass has a “fighting chance.” He considers the Fighting Irish a strong No. 5 seed.
“I did pick Notre Dame pretty quickly, but that said, Notre Dame is not a perfect team by any means,” Creme said. “They can be a team that if they’re not right, then they can be had.”
The Minutewomen are a veteran team led by the “Savage Seven,” who guided UMass on an improbable run to the A10 final last winter. All seven returned for 2021-22: graduate student Sam Breen, senior Destiney Philoxy, juniors Taylor and Angelique Ngalakulondi, sophomores Makennah White and Ber’Nyah Mayo, and freshman Stefanie Kulesza, who enrolled last winter.
This year’s team set a program record for wins and captured the first conference tournament title in school history. UMass’s other NCAA Tournament appearances, in 1996 and 1998, were at-large bids.
“This is an opportunity we’re looking to take advantage of,” Philoxy said. “We’re beyond excited for the experience but also focused. That’s going to show again on Saturday.”
“If we just do what we do and play how we’re capable of playing, I think we’re just unstoppable,” Taylor said.
Breen, the A10 Player of the Year, leads the team in scoring (16.9) and rebounding (10.3). Philoxy (11.0 points, 5.7 apg) and Taylor (15.8 assists) picked up All-Conference second-team honors. Philoxy also made the All-Defense team.
“We have all the missing pieces to our puzzle,” Philoxy said. “So we’re good.”
Notre Dame, ranked No. 22 in the nation, finished third in the ACC. Second-year coach Niele Ivey’s team is youthful, with two freshmen and a sophomore as three of the top four scorers.
Freshman Olivia Miles (13.7 points, 5.5 rebounds, 7.2, assists) earned All-ACC first-team honors. Classmate Sonia Citron (11.6 points) was the ACC Rookie of the Year. Graduate student Maya Dodson (12.4 points, 7.6 rebounds) and sophomore Maddy Westbeld (11.5 points) round out a quartet of double-figure scorers.
From Verdi’s perspective, stopping Notre Dame will take a concerted effort on the glass, limiting transition opportunities, and matching their physicality. Notre Dame plays zone defense approximately 75 percent of the time, he said. It’s imperative the Minutewomen establish a balanced scoring attack and not settle for 3-pointers.
UMass and Notre Dame had two common opponents this season, Boston College and Fordham. UMass lost to BC and beat Fordham twice, including once in the A10 tournament. Notre Dame split two meetings against BC and beat Fordham in November. And don’t forget, the Minutewomen nearly took down then-No. 13 Iowa State in late November, well before truly hitting their stride.
“I think we’re just as good as anyone,” Verdi said. “Now it’s just about showing up and showing out. Our players are ultra-competitive and they’re going to go in guns blazing.”