UMass basketball: Minutewomen looking to end season strong at Atlantic 10 tourney

UMass guard Stefanie Kulesza (44) puts up a shot against UAlbany earlier this season at the Mullins Center in Amherst.

UMass guard Stefanie Kulesza (44) puts up a shot against UAlbany earlier this season at the Mullins Center in Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

By GARRETT COTE

Staff Writer

Published: 03-05-2024 5:21 PM

It’s been a complete turnaround from last season, and not the turnaround the UMass women’s basketball team had hoped for.

It was going to be almost impossible to replicate the success the 2022-23 team had last winter (program record in wins, Atlantic 10 regular season title), especially considering all but one player from the rotation departed from the program along with coach Tory Verdi.

Still, going from 27 wins to one defeat away from 27 losses in the span of nearly 365 days is certainly a disappointment, and perhaps first-year head coach Mike Leflar would be the first to admit that. But the Minutewomen have the opportunity to build for their future with more basketball to be played, as they travel to Henrico, Va. for the A-10 tournament this week.

UMass (4-26, 2-16 A-10) is seeded 13th out of 14 teams, and it actually earned a decent draw for its first-round matchup after beating St. Bonaventure in the regular season finale last week.

On Wednesday, No. 13 UMass will meet No. 12 La Salle at noon with the game streaming on ESPN-plus – the winner moving on to Thursday’s second round contest against No. 5 Duquesne. Both times the Minutewomen faced the Explorers this season, they lost by six points (70-64) on the road and two (63-61) at home, and both times they blew a late fourth-quarter lead.

The two sides’ first meeting came back on Jan. 13, as UMass raced out to an early lead and carried that to a 47-42 advantage at the end of the third quarter. That lead wouldn’t last long, however, with La Salle rattling off 11 straight points to catapult ahead 53-47. The Minutewomen surrendered 28 points in the frame en route to their six-point loss in Philadelphia.

Eighteen days later, La Salle traveled to the Mullins Center for the second of two regular season bouts. The game in Amherst was a near carbon-copy of the game in Philly. UMass built a 12-point halftime lead, went ahead by as many as 14 in the third quarter and, according to ESPN, had a 96.3 percent chance to win at one point late in the third.

La Salle lightning then struck again.

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After a 13-10 Explorers edge in the third, they again erupted in the fourth quarter – scoring 25 points while holding UMass to 14.

So, although the Minutewomen went 0-2 against La Salle this season, they’ve made it clear they have what it takes to beat them, and probably should have one at least one of the matchups if it weren’t for the blown fourth quarter leads.

UMass ended its 15-game losing streak against the Bonnies on Feb. 28, so the Minutewomen are heading to Henrico with at least a little bit of momentum.

But to knock off La Salle, they’ll have to stop Nicole Melious and Makayla Miller – both average 10 points per game. Melious, a freshman, is fresh off a season-high 28 points on 10-for-15 shooting and eight 3-pointers in a win against Fordham, and Miller, a senior, averages 12 points, seven assists and six rebounds in two games against UMass this season.

On top of that, junior Gabby Turco put up a game-high 17 points off the bench against the Minutewomen in the first meeting.

In recent program history, UMass has had plenty of success at the Atlantic 10 tournament. The Minutewomen lost in overtime to Saint Louis in the A-10 title game a season ago, and won the whole thing the year prior to make the NCAA tournament.

Winning the tournament isn’t a realistic expectation for this year’s team, but picking up at least one conference tournament win would be huge heading into Leflar’s second year as head coach. It could potentially give this UMass squad – one that returns its top two scorers in Kristin Williams and Stefanie Kulesza – something to build off of after a year of trials and tribulations.