January 28, 2022 

“We all just complement each other really well”: The secret behind UMass’ success on offense

After last year’s disappointing loss in the championship, the Minutewomen hope their dynamic offense will lead them to their first Atlantic 10 title

UMass’ offense is like a well-oiled machine.

Sam Breen blocks a shot, grabs the rebound and tosses the ball to Ber’Nyah Mayo. Mayo dribbles twice before tossing it three-quarters of the way down the court to Angelique Ngalakulondi. Ngalakulondi catches the ball in transition and makes the layup before a George Washington defender could get into position.

This is just one of many examples of each Minutewoman complementing the play of one another to execute the play.

“I feel like everyone has a different role,” Sam Breen told The Next. “And I think all the roles mesh really well together. And on most nights even if someone’s struggling, I think the other four or five, six players in the game, really help pick them up.”

On Jan. 22 against GW, Mayo was held scoreless going into the fourth quarter, where she scored all six of her points. Breen and Sydney Taylor were able to compensate, combining for 37 points. 

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UMass has the second-best offense in the Atlantic 10, averaging 71.1 points per game. But how do the Minutewomen make it work?

The Star(ter)s 

The Minutewomen have six players that average at least 5.0 points per game, including three averaging in double figures. UMass strongly relies on their starting five for their scoring production.

Breen, Taylor, Mayo and Destiney Philoxy have started all 20 games this season, with Ngalakulondi and Makennah White splitting the final starting spot with ten games apiece. 

Head coach Tory Verdi spoke highly of his starters and acknowledged they all complement one another. 

“I think that we have an inside game with Sam Breen, who is one of the best scoring forwards in the A-10,” he said. 

Verdi added, “[We have] Syd[ney] Taylor, who [can] knock down shots. And we have guards in Ber’Nyah Mayo and Destiney Philoxy who [can] get downhill and attack. And then with Angelique [Ngalakulondi] in the middle, she just puts herself in a position to gobble up any offensive rebounds, and give us a putback. So they’re balanced, I think there’s not necessarily any weakness with the personnel that we’re putting on the floor.”

Fifth in the A-10 in scoring, Breen averages 16.8 points per game in addition to 11.0 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.6 steals in 36.3 minutes per game. 

“Sam’s one of the best players in the country,” Taylor said. She later added, “She’s always having a positive attitude, regardless of if we’re winning or not. So I think that’s something every team needs, someone like that.”

Taylor is not far behind, averaging 15.1 points per game, good for 10th in the conference in scoring. She also adds 4.2 rebounds and 1.4 assists in 34.4 minutes per game. 

“There’s not really a bad shot for her,” Breen said of Taylor. “I feel like if she has space, it’s a good shot. And she can obviously shoot the heck out of the ball … If they’re going to try to take away her three she can get to the rim.”

Mayo leads the team in steals, averaging 2.4 steals per game, tied for first in the A-10, also adding 9.8 points, 4.6 rebounds and 2.6 assists in 34.6 minutes per game. 

Philoxy leads the Minutewomen in assists with 105, or 5.3 per game, more than the second and third place combined. She also adds 11.5 points, 3.7 rebounds and 1.3 steals in 34.9 minutes per game. 

“She’s going to give it her all every single second she’s on the court,” Breen said of Ngalakulondi. She later added, “And more often than not, when she gets that o-board and puts it back up it’s going in. And she can really finish through contact.”

Ngalakulondi has nearly doubled her point production from last year, averaging 9.2 points, 6.6 rebounds and 1.2 blocks in 22.5 minutes per game. Her 1.2 blocks per game are good for fifth in the conference.  

“We saw her [Ngalakulondi] come out last year in the conference tournament and she hasn’t missed a beat,” Verdi said. “And, again, very aggressive, just always moving and finding the ball and giving herself opportunities to score. And so, we’d like to get her the ball a little bit more.”

White averages 5.5 points and 4.4 rebounds in 18.7 minutes per game 

Such a potent set of scorers provides UMass’ offense with an insurance policy. 

“You’re not always going to have an ‘on night.’” Taylor said. “You’re not always going to be hitting all your shots — to know that I have other people to depend on and they’re able to knock down shots when I’m not, it’s a great feeling to have.” 

While the bench is short, it still makes an impact from the sideline. 

“Our players on the bench have really owned the energy piece, and we really feed off them,” Breen said. “So I think that really, helps because even if they’re not playing, they still are just as important as the people on the floor because we really feed off their energy and they are very, very consistent.”

Early Success 

The Minutewomen won their first seven games including wins over South Dakota State and Kent State in the Gulf Coast Showcase.

UMass’ first loss game was in a failed comeback against then No. 13 Iowa State in the Gulf Coast Showcase championship game.

Verdi’s favorite memory of this season was the team’s trip down to Florida. 

“Watching them not quit, never giving up, showing up and regardless of who we’re playing, just enjoying and taking advantage of that moment,” he said. 

The team won two more games in a row before falling to Boston College. The Minutewomen rattled off three more wins against Columbia, Vermont and Hartford to total a 12-2 start to the season, the program’s best since Title IX was enacted in 1972.

After an electric start to the season, the Minutewomen screeched to a halt when COVID-19 hit the team hard. Verdi noted that everyone on the team had COVID during the team’s three-week layoff. 

The team’s last non-conference game against Dartmouth was postponed, as well as the Minutewomen’s first three conference games against George Mason, Rhode Island and La Salle. 

“We were really sick,” Verdi said. He later added, “It impacts you tremendously. [It] impacts you physically, not getting the reps up and down the court. So you talk about conditioning, but then more importantly just being able to be systematic, on both sides of the ball, offensively and defensively. And so, when you don’t get those minutes on the court, you’re not able to practice, it’s kind of hard to go out and all of a sudden play a game.”

UMass opened conference play with a rematch of last year’s A-10 tournament title game, at VCU on Jan. 12, and defeated the Rams 72-60 despite practicing for just one two-hour period before the game. 

“My State of the Union address is that I’m really proud of this basketball team,” Verdi said in his post-game press conference after the win over VCU, holding back tears. 

“I’m emotional because it’s been a tough three weeks,” Verdi added. “It’s been a really tough three weeks. And nobody knows how tough it is. And it was, unless, you’re really in it. Our players knew coaches knew. And when you go through something like that, the adversity that you face, and for them to come out and respond and play the way they did today shows you their character.”

Sam Breen and Destiney Philoxy help teammate Sydney Taylor up in the team’s Jan. 22 game at George Washington. Photo Credit: Domenic Allegra.

A win over Richmond three days later gave the Minutewomen a 2-0 start in conference play. 

Two losses in three days (Jan. 15 and 17), to Rhode Island and Dayton, followed the hot start.

“To come out of quarantine, and to play those four games in that short amount of time [eight days], and where we don’t get time to truly practice and prep for these games … it was just really hard,” Verdi said on Jan. 20.

He added, “But make no excuses about it. We[‘ve] just got to bounce back. And we’re sitting here at .500. And we should be really happy with where we are right now, especially with all the adversity that we faced.”

And bounce back they did, with a 68-41 win over GW to move them back into the win column and 3-2 in conference play. 

A second loss to Rhode Island on Jan. 26 dropped the Minutewomen to 3-3 in A-10 play and 15-5 overall. 

What makes UMass difficult to defend?

Breen believes that the team is hard to defend because they’re dynamic and can score at multiple levels. She noted, “If they’re going to defend the three-point line and overly defend the three-point line, we can get to the rim. If they’re going to take away the paint, more times than not, we’re going to be able to shoot pretty well.”

Mayowa Taiwo of GW said after the Colonials’ loss to the Minutewomen that UMass is very efficient and capitalized on the Colonial’s defensive mistakes. 

GW head coach Caroline McCombs also noted UMass’ scoring threats, including Taylor and Breen, saying, “I think they have good scorers and they score on a high level and they score with good percentages … They’re not very deep. They do have scoring at every position and I know that’s something that they focus on.”

Breen believes the number of scoring threats forces defenses to make difficult decisions and therefore makes the Minutewomen more difficult to defend. 

“I’ve talked about this with my teammates before, if they’re going to double me, let them double me,” Breen said. “Because I’m going to find the open person on the perimeter and they’re going to knock down the shot. If they want to try to take away Sydney’s [Taylor] three-point shot she can get to the rim and finish.”

She added, “If they want to try to force Destiney [Philoxy] right. She’s going to make it work and she’s going to finish at the rim. So they can do what they want to to take our main things away, but it’s not like we can’t do other things. If they want to double me and leave the other posts open. I’m going to find them and they’re going to finish through contact.” 

Taylor believes that UMass’ offense is difficult to play against because they’re able to play against zone and man defenses because the team runs different offenses and plays. 

“There’s always something that we can do to score against a defense that’s playing us,” Taylor said. 

She also noted UMass’ complex plays, some including her running in a circle, are hard to defend. Taylor also added, “We have so many offensive weapons. One through five can score the basketball, which makes it really hard to defend.”

Adjustments Moving Forward

Despite its great success, UMass knows there’s still aspects of its offense they need to clean up. 

During their two-game losing streak, the Minutewomen scored 58 and 60 points against Rhode Island and Dayton, well below their season average.

After UMass’ loss to the Flyers, the team knew what went wrong and what they needed to do to adjust. 

Breen noted on Jan. 20 that the Minutewomen needed to play as strongly in the first half as they do in the second half. 

A 22-4 second quarter just two days later gave UMass a commanding 39-18 halftime lead over GW. 

“I think it’s a confidence thing,” Breen said. “I think when the ball is going in the hoop, it’s easier to be a lot more confident and want to take pride in your defense. And I think usually we’re a team that doesn’t necessarily dwell on that. Sometimes it happens unconsciously.”

Breen acknowledged that while the team’s defense has dictated its offense at times, the Minutewomen cannot let that continue moving forward.  

Verdi wants to see his team get back to grabbing offensive rebounds, something he described as the team’s “bread and butter,” and giving the team more possessions, after getting away from that in its two losses to Dayton and Rhode Island.

In addition, he’d like to see his team improve in transition. 

“I think that we’re in a hurry, I think everyone is trying to score the ball,” Verdi said. “So it’s one pass and then the ball dies in their hands because everyone’s just trying to score the ball.” 

He added, “This team’s been very good when we’re unselfish, and moving the ball from side to side, and breaking down the defense. And for whatever reason, we got to get back to that.”

Verdi would also like to see his team stop settling for threes and get more post touches, something the Minutewomen were able to accomplish against GW, scoring 32 of their 68 points in the paint. 

Lastly, Taylor believes the team can improve their on-court communication, specifically on the offensive end of the floor. She specified this includes improving on telling teammates to cut, meeting passes and just talking to each other more often. 

UMass was picked sixth in the coaches’ preseason poll, and despite losing a few games early, the team knows they still have the potential to win the A-10 tournament. 

Looking Ahead, Offense Isn’t Everything

Looking ahead to the last month of conference play, the team still has their eyes set on an A-10 tournament title, something they were just minutes away from last season

To make it back, Verdi believes the team has to not only be productive offensively. But also defend better and rebound, which the Minutewomen already do well, averaging 41.4 rebounds per game, good for third in the conference

Verdi’s goal for the rest of the season, aside from winning an A-10 tournament championship, is simple, “Just win the day. If we win the day, it will put us in the position to be successful to win games.”

While they know that anyone can beat anyone in the A-10, UMass is confident it can lock into preparation for the remainder of the season and reach its goal.

“It hurt a lot, making it to the championship and losing last season,” Taylor said. “So I definitely want my revenge. I want to win this season and go as far as we can.”

Written by Natalie Heavren

Natalie Heavren has been a contributor to The Next since February 2019 and currently writes about the Atlantic 10 conference, the WNBA and the WBL.

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