Hope is budding at the Mullins Center. A plan is starting to take shape, a vision slowly being fulfilled. You have the notables like the Massachusetts men’s basketball team and the Massachusetts men’s hockey team making tons of noise.
And then there’s the Massachusetts women’s basketball team. They’re not dominating the headlines like the other two, but quietly, there’s a program being built.
Coach Tory Verdi is in his third season at the helm of what was once a sinking ship. Prior to his hiring, the Minutewomen went a combined 38-111 in a five-year stretch between 2011-12 and 2015-16. At their lowest, they went 3-26 during the 2012-13 campaign and 4-27 during 2013-14.
Verdi was brought on after the 2015-16 season, and even in his first year, the Minutewomen weren’t anything special, finishing with a lowly 9-27 record.
Last season provided some reason for optimism, as the Minutewomen went 14-16 and 6-10 in the Atlantic 10. Verdi hopes to continue that uptick in his third year.
“We have to be consistent and take care of all the little things,” Verdi said. “Well, what are the little things? Taking care of the basketball. You have to limit turnovers and stay disciplined in what we do. I think the more acclimated they get with one another, the better off we’re going to be.”
With seven new players and five in their second season with the program, the Minutewomen are focused on getting acclimated on the court quickly.
“Our chemistry is really good compared to the last two seasons,” said junior Hailey Leidel. “We’ve been close, but I feel like basketball-wise, we’re good and off the court we’re good. Overall, we’re a family and we’re all clicking.”
One positive that came out of last season was the emergence of Leidel, who followed up a strong freshman year by taking charge on the offensive side of the ball. Leidel led the Minutewomen in scoring with 15.5 points per game while also setting a new UMass record with 83 three-pointers made on the season, which led the A-10.
Another standout from last season was guard Bre Hampton-Bey, now entering her sophomore year. As a freshman, she ranked third on her team in scoring with 11.2 points per game, first in assists with 4.1 and second in rebounds with 4.5. She also made the A-10 All-Rookie team last season.
For Hampton-Bey, avoiding a sophomore slump will be the goal of this season, and if she can take a step forward opposite Leidel, it could open up the UMass offense.
“I just come with the mindset that I can be the best in the league and just prove a point to everybody that everyone’s going to notice me every time I step on the floor so that I can be an all-conference team person,” said the Ohio native. “Basically, I just have to go hard every game, so everyone knows who I am.”
The biggest question mark on this team is, with the loss of Maggie Mulligan to graduation, who will be the team’s leading rebounder?
In her senior year, Mulligan led the team in rebounds with 10.6 per game and ranked second in points with 11.3.
“We’re going to have to rebound by committee,” Verdi said after an exhibition. “Maggie was a walking double-double every single night, so we’ll miss that from her. She would gobble up all the rebounds. When you lose that now everybody has to contribute somehow, someway and I thought we did a really good job here tonight.” Leidel understands the rebound-by-committee role her and her teammates will be thrust into.
“With Maggie leaving and Anil [Soysal] coming in, Anil’s new, so we kind of knew that as a guard, I need to step up for rebounding and as a team we all need to step up,” she said. “I think knowing that and knowing we have a smaller lineup just motivates you to go harder because people don’t expect you to get as many.”
Soysal, a redshirt freshman, is projected to replace Mulligan at the center position after missing all of last season with a torn ACL. To say she has large shoes to fill would be an understatement.
“She’s growing each and every day and that’s what we need from her,” Verdi said. “We need to be able to attack the rim. When her defender comes over to block shots, we have to be able to drop passes to her and lob it up to her where she can catch and finish.”
Without Mulligan, UMass is much more guard-heavy, providing for a much different style than the Minutewomen have played in past years.
“It’s different,” Leidel said. “We’ve always had Maggie who just holds down the fort, but it’s different having a five-out system, and we can really pressure a lot more on defense. Defensively, I love it. It’s really fun. But it’s a new look and it opens up the floor a little bit.”
Verdi has more reasons than just Mulligan graduating for switching to a pressure-filled defense.
“I feel really good about our depth especially with our size,” he said. “If we’re smaller, we’re going to speed up the game and get after it. We’re going to get deflections and steals and try to push and attack offensively and put pressure on our opponents on both sides of the ball.”
Another thing the Minutewomen have is quality minutes off the bench. Last year, a wave of freshmen provided relief for a shockingly thin team from Verdi’s first year, but this year’s roster is deeper and will help get rest for Leidel and Hampton-Bey.
“Our bench scoring from a year ago was an area in which we lacked,” said Verdi after UMass’ exhibition against UMass Dartmouth. “The fact that Destiney [Philoxy] can come in and she’s very aggressive offensively, she can get to the rim. We need that from her. We need that from Asia [McCoy] as well. Asia was very active here tonight. That type of offensive production coming off the bench will help us down the road.”
In her first exhibition game of the season against UMass Dartmouth, McCoy led all scorers with 17 points, recording a double-double with 11 rebounds.
That’s another thing the Minutewomen are excited for: the freshmen. Philoxy and McCoy are expected to be the most impactful, but UMass also brings in forwards Jessica Nelson and Alexa Kellner and guard Madison Lowery, who will jostle for minutes off the bench.
“We love [the freshmen] coming off the bench,” Leidel said. “They’re just little balls of energy and they both play so hard. They’re really coming together with us. We’re really excited about them and they’re a good group.”
All in all, the Minutewomen really like the togetherness they’ve shown thus far.
“I just feel like everyone’s more on the same page with one another and the freshmen just really bought in to what we had,” Leidel said. “We haven’t always had that. Sometimes we’ll have a couple people not fully committed. That has held us back a lot so having everyone come in and just be committed and be here for the reasons we’re here it really just makes everything better.”
Coach Verdi summed it up best.
“We’re still growing,” Verdi said. “We’ll see come Tuesday night. There’s an evolution and we’re taking steps in that direction.”
The Minutewomen begin that evolution Tuesday at 4:30 p.m. against Sacred Heart at the Mullins Center.
Evan Marinofsky can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @emarinofsky.
(Photos by Katherine Mayo/Daily Collegian)