March 8, 2022
Sights and sounds from UMass’ first Atlantic 10 tournament championship
Magical moments in Wilmington
WILMINGTON, Del. — When the final buzzer of the Atlantic 10 Women’s Basketball Tournament sounded, the confetti cannons were grabbed and set off, but UMass players were nowhere near them. Instead, they were jumping and screaming by halfcourt, eventually tumbling down into a pile of hugs near the sideline while Dayton exited the court behind confetti predominately in their colors, red and white, but not meant for them.
The UMass Hoop Band played as UMass hugged, cried and donned its championship hats. The cheering, crying and embraces went on for a few more minutes before Sydney Taylor, Angelique Ngalakulondi and Destiney Philoxy started making confetti angels before throwing confetti in the air as they continued to take in the moment and the program’s first-ever A-10 tournament title.
On March 6, UMass defeated Dayton 62-56 to secure the team’s first trip to the NCAA Tournament since 1998 and third overall. The Minutewomen finished what they started last season, when they fell just minutes short of securing a victory in last year’s A-10 championship game, falling to VCU 81-69.
From the start, UMass played with a sense of urgency, something evident by the team’s 13-4 lead built in the first five and a half minutes of the game. After the game, Ber’Nyah Mayo noted the team didn’t want to feel the same way it did at the end of last season’s title game and credited that feeling with pushing the team to play strong from the start.
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As the hugging and crying continued, T-shirts were passed around and put on between tears of joy and more hugs.
During the post-game ceremony, Sam Breen was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player and was so excited, after taking a photo with A-10 commissioner Bernadette V. McGlade, that she appeared lost and had to be pointed towards her teammate Sydney Taylor, who was also named to the all-tournament team, for a photo op.
After that, each staff member and player’s name was called one by one to receive their championship ring from McGlade. Slowly the group grew larger on the right than on the left, where UMass head coach Tory Verdi waited proudly behind his team to receive his ring.
As a team, the Minutewomen hoisted their first trophy, eventually setting it down for photos while UMass fans still stood in the stands soaking in their team’s victory.
As the first notes of Queen’s “We Are the Champions” played, the team raised the trophy again, cheering once more. Even 10 minutes after the final buzzer sounded, Verdi looked around in disbelief, saying wow.
The confetti cannons were reloaded and launched as Philoxy began cutting down the net. This time, the Minutewomen were there to enjoy it.
As Philoxy tried to cut down the net with a dull pair of scissors that were later replaced by silver shears, Verdi took a moment to embrace and chat with Washington Mystics head coach Mike Thibault, with whom he coached three seasons on the staff of the Connecticut Sun.
Because Thibault was calling the game, he wasn’t able to give Verdi any advice as he had earlier in the UMass coach’s career. Instead, Thibault told him “not to screw up today.”
“It doesn’t get any better than that, that your mentor’s doing the game and he’s there to witness us win a championship,” Verdi said. He later added, “He’s one of my best friends. And he’s the reason why I am where I am.”
Cheers from the crowd rang out as each player got their own piece of the net, with the loudest one coming for Wilmington native Ber’Nyah Mayo, whose face was on shirts worn by many in the crowd.
The look of disbelief never wavered from Verdi’s face, even as he took a moment to pose for photos with a fan in a UMass jersey.
Eventually, players made their way over to the trophy to take photos with it and their large ticket to March Madness.
Verdi was the last to take to the ladder, cutting down the remaining net and twirling it in the air for all to see before climbing down and putting the net on as a necklace.
At some point on the way to the press conference, the net necklace was transferred to Mayo, who also had her piece of the net tied around her championship hat.
Mayo was appreciative of her Delaware support system, with her family and friends making up a large portion of the crowd, complete with signs and T-shirts reading “Welcome Home Fatty,” her nickname used affectionately by her family, friends and teammates alike.
“I feel like they give me the world every day,” Mayo said after the game. “They never told me no. So honestly, I feel like this is for them. And I’m just glad they can be proud of me regardless, win or lose. They always tell me to just give my best, so this is honestly for them.”
Throughout the game, Dayton’s band and fans were as loud as they had been all tournament long, but the UMass fans provided deafening cheers from tip-off to the final buzzer, finding a new level of noise with each run from the Minutewomen.
“That gym is loud,” Taylor said after the game. “I really couldn’t hear a thing at all. I was almost kind of just looking at hand motions and I don’t know, reading lips. It’s hard to hear out there, and I appreciate all of Fatty’s [Mayo] friends, all of Stef’s [Stefanie Kulesza, also a Wilmington native] friends.”
After Mayo hit both free throws with 34 seconds left in the game to put UMass up six, Taylor handed the ball to Mayo again, knowing that since she just hit two free throws, Mayo could hit two more.
Mayo was fouled again with 23 seconds left, and the usually expressionless sophomore let out a scream.
“It’s good to see her with a little bit of emotion,” Taylor said.
Mayo felt like the time was right to put her feelings on her sleeve. “To look up on the clock and know we are right there, honestly, I feel like it was the perfect time to let it all out,” Mayo said.
The crowd rose to its feet cheering for Mayo and the rest of the Minutewomen and didn’t sit back down for the rest of the afternoon. Moments later, before the final buzzer sounded, UMass fans began to trickle down from their seats to stand by the barrier behind the Minutewomen’s bench, knowing their team was on the precipice of history.
History came after a sleepless night for Verdi caused by a lack of 100 percent certainty in the game plan. After watching several games of film and an early meeting with his staff, they as a group were able to adjust the defensive game plan. The game plan to contain the dribble penetration and not switch posts off Dayton’s post players worked from the start, with UMass controlling the game from the opening tip to the closing seconds.
Having coached at every level from a boys’ high school team to the WNBA, this moment has been long awaited for Verdi.
“I hoped for this day, you have no idea,” Verdi said, fighting through tears. “I hoped, I dreamt. I dreamt of this day for so many years. And for now, that it’s here, it’s just, it’s amazing to me … As far as now, being here, it’s surreal, almost. And I’m just super excited. Like I said, I’m super excited for our players, that this is going to be a lifetime memory for them.”
After another accomplishment in a record-setting season, the next goal for the Minutewomen is the program’s first NCAA Tournament win, and the team will find out its first opponent on March 13.