UMass basketball: Cornerstones Sam Breen, Destiney Philoxy helped put Minutewomen on the national scene


Staff Writer 

Published: 03-05-2023 6:29 PM

It’s a story Tory Verdi loves to tell. 

When he first took the head coaching job at UMass back in 2016, people told him he was ‘crazy’ for coming to a program with nothing. It had no history, no culture of winning. Why would he go there? What possessed him to take the job? 

If UMass fans have learned anything from watching Verdi coach over the past seven years, it’s that he’s never one to back down from a challenge. 

Since that fateful hiring, the Minutewomen have gone from zero to hero. The women’s basketball program is one of the most successful sports on campus, and has made it to the Atlantic 10 Conference championship game for three consecutive years, winning it all in 2022 and punching its ticket to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1998. The Minutewomen fell to Saint Louis in Sunday’s title game, 91-85, in overtime, and now they’ll a week before Selection Sunday to see if they make it two trips in a row as an at-large pick.

The culture has gone from one of disinterest to one where success is an expectation. 

A culture change like that doesn’t happen because of just one person. Something that monumental has to be a group effort. 

“It’s everyone. From day one, since I took over this program, there was a commitment made by our administration. Then we were able to get an unbelievable coaching staff together, and then it was about going out recruiting really good character kids who are competitive and want to win,” Verdi said. “A winning culture, we had to figure out a way of how to build that up and believe in it, and it happened. And we all walked, we all took steps together along this way.”

But while there’s a need for administrators and coaches to buy in to make programs great, you also have to be able to find players who are skilled and motivated enough to make it happen. It isn’t easy, especially when that program doesn’t have a long history of success to fall back on when recruiting. 

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UMass found not one gem but two in Destiney Philoxy and Sam Breen, the team's two fifth-year players. Verdi and his staff believed in both of them, and in turn, Philoxy and Breen gave the UMass fans something to believe in. 

“We talk about foundation –  those guys are cornerstones,” Verdi said on Breen and Philoxy following Sunday’s defeat. “I’m just super proud of them, their development, their maturation, and they've won a lot of games during their time. They will be remembered as two players that catapulted this program to national level.”

Breen and Philoxy have etched their names into the record books multiple times. Both scored over a 1,000 points for UMass, hitting the milestone on the very same night. “Queen” Breen became the top scorer in UMass history this season, breaking the previous record of 1,858 and is still adding points to her total. Philoxy has the record for all-time games played in UMass history and also broke the all-time assist record (579) this year. 

It isn’t just Breen and Philoxy who have built this program to where it is today. The team has depth now, players like Angelique Ngalakulondi, Ber’Nyah Mayo, Sydney Taylor, Makennah White, and a whole bench full of talented players ready to step up when called on. But Breen and Philoxy were two of the first who came during the rebuild, and they’ll leave the program as two of the most beloved and decorated players in program history. 

“I wouldn't trade it for the world,” Breen said. “We've had the same starting five for a while now, we've made relationships that we're gonna have for the rest of our lives. Even though today didn't really go our way, I think the past three years we've all been playing together have just brought a lot of blessings and I don't think any of us would trade that for the world.” 

That’s one of Verdi’s core tenants when it comes to coaching – he cares deeply about his players, his staff, and the bonds they forge with each other during the grind of a season. It’s what has brought players to the Flagship, and what will hopefully keep them coming long after Breen and Philoxy, the cornerstones, have graduated.

Breen and Philoxy may have been the foundations, but it’s the rest of the players who come after them and the relationships that they build that will be the structure of success for years to come. 

“This does not happen just because of me. This happens because of the people in this program and that's why I'm so proud to be affiliated and be with them and be their leader in this program,” Verdi said. “It's about having everyone believe in you, and that was the first step…. I'm extremely proud of where we've been and where we are right now and where we will continue to be.”