UMass basketball: First place on the line as Minutewomen travel to Rhode Island

By HANNAH BEVIS 

Staff Writer 

Published: 02-15-2023 4:23 PM

The Atlantic-10 Conference Women’s Basketball Tournament is still two weeks away, but Thursday night’s game between UMass and Rhode Island at the Thomas M. Ryan Center (6 p.m. ESPN-Plus) in Kingston, R.I. could very well be an A-10 title game preview.

Nobody predicted that the Rams would be this good this year. Rhode Island was a force last year, but coming into the 2022-23 season, 83 percent of the team’s scoring was gone, and Dolly Cairns was the lone returning starter. It was meant to be a rebuilding season, but it’s turned into something much more. The Rams’ stellar conference run and current 12-game winning streak (one shy of a program-best) earned them six votes in the AP Women’s Basketball Poll this week, the first time Rhode Island has received votes this season and the most votes they’ve ever earned in a single poll. 

Rhode Island (21-3 overall, 12-0 A-10) is currently the only A-10 team undefeated in conference play; UMass’ lone loss came against the Rams (75-68) when the teams met at the Mullins Center back in January. The Minutewomen haven’t lost since that game, rattling off 10 consecutive wins.

UMass (21-4, 11-1) has struggled against Rhode Island over the last couple of years. The last time the Minutewomen took down the Rams was on Dec. 8, 2020. Last year, Rhode Island won both matchups against UMass, though the two titans didn’t meet in the A-10 tournament after a shocking collapse by the Rams.

Tammi Reiss, Rhode Island’s head coach, thinks last year’s team had too much pressure on them to be champions. She wanted to get back to the process this year, focusing on the day-to-day. So far, it’s working out.

Thursday’s matchup will be a good barometer for where the Minutewomen are this season. Early injuries had the UMass lineup on a rollercoaster for much of the first half, with players coming in and out of the lineup and making it difficult for players to get build chemistry and coaches to build consistency. Now, everyone has finally gotten healthy and the Minutewomen have managed to get some more games under their belts with a full roster. 

If UMass call pull off the win, not only would it bolster confidence heading into the A-10 tournament, but it would tie the team’s longest win streak under current head coach Tory Verdi. In the 2019-20 season, Verdi coached his club to an 11-game win streak, a program record. If UMass can solve Rhode Island, it’ll tie that record and have a chance to best it in its next home game against Davidson on Sunday (noon). 

But before they can look that far, they’ll have to take care of the Rams. UMass will rely on its usual suspects – Sam Breen, Sydney Taylor, Destiney Philoxy, and Ber’Nyah Mayo. Mayo is coming off a career-best 29-point performance that helped her earn her first career A-10 Player of the Week honor, and another standout performance from her would be a huge boost for the Minutewomen. Makennah White and Angelique Ngalakulondi continue to be valuable in the paint, and bench player Stefanie Kulesza has received more minutes in recent tilts.

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The Minutewomen will have to keep extra close eyes on VCU transfer Madison Hattix-Covington, Mayé Touré, Cairns and Dayton transfer Tenin Magassa during Thursday’s game. Magassa could be the X-factor – the 6-5 junior was still recovering from surgery and wasn’t able to dress against the Minutewomen in their first matchup, but she will be available for this contest.

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