For only the third time in school history, the University of Massachusetts women’s basketball team is heading to the NCAA tournament, where the Minutewomen take on the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in the first round on Saturday in Norman, Oklahoma.
It’s a big moment for the UMass program, especially in a year when no other Massachusetts team qualified for either the women’s or men’s tournament.
That has given the team a tremendous amount of pride according to head coach Tory Verdi, who said one of the things the team has been fighting for is respect.
“And, you know, we have not had that for whatever reason,” he said. “I mean, I get it. There hasn’t been any tradition here, there hasn’t been any history here. So people would just laugh and mock our program. And we’ve turned that corner now. And we’ve gotten the respect.”
The trip to the tournament comes after a historic campaign for UMass. The team went 26-6, a program record for wins, through the regular season and the Atlantic 10 tournament, which the Minutewomen won for the first time with a 62-56 upset victory over Dayton on March 6.
The season gave the squad plenty of confidence, which the Minutewomen will need if they want to advance in the battle for survival that is the NCAA tournament. They’ll have a tall task ahead of them with Notre Dame, which is currently ranked #21 in the country, but junior guard Sydney Taylor is confident unranked UMass will be up to the task.
“I feel like we’re pretty good against just about any team in the whole country,” she said. “So, I know we are the underdogs. But I mean if we just do what we do and play how we’re capable of playing and everyone plays their best, I think we’re just unstoppable.”
Taylor pointed out that the team’s uniforms say Massachusetts, not just UMass, an especially nice touch for the state’s flagship university. While the Minutewomen are playing primarily for themselves, senior guard Destiney Philoxy says they will also be representing the other schools from the state who didn’t qualify.
“Knowing that we have other teams who would want to be in our position, we’re just going to play for them also,” she said.
The last time UMass was in the women’s tournament was all the way back in 1998, when the Minutewomen lost 77-59 to Iowa in the opening round. A victory over Norte Dame would be the school’s first ever tournament win, and would bust a few brackets in the process.
For Verdi, that’s entirely in the realm of possibility. He said that, in the past, teams would think of games against UMass as automatic wins. But he believes that now, at any point in time, the Minutewomen can knock out a Power Five program as they carry the flag for the Bay State.
“You know, I think we’re just as good as anyone,” he said. “And so now it’s about showing up and showing out and showing everybody what we’re capable of doing. But the biggest thing to me is . . . we’ve gotten some respect within the Commonwealth.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism