UMass basketball: Minutewomen advance in Atlantic 10 tourney with 54-49 win over La Salle

Chinenye Odenigbo and the UMass women’s basketball team opened its Atlantic 10 Tournament run with a 54-49 win over La Salle in the first round on Wednesday in Henrico, Va.

Chinenye Odenigbo and the UMass women’s basketball team opened its Atlantic 10 Tournament run with a 54-49 win over La Salle in the first round on Wednesday in Henrico, Va. PHOTO BY CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS

By GARRETT COTE

Staff Writer

Published: 03-06-2024 3:25 PM

The previous two times the UMass women’s basketball team played La Salle this season, the Minutewomen held late leads in the fourth quarter and watched them slip away en route to two heartbreaking conference defeats.

But on Wednesday afternoon in Henrico, Va. in the first round of the Atlantic 10 Tournament, UMass refused to let history repeat itself, and, as they say, the third time was the charm.

Behind 12 huge second-half points from Tori Hyduke (14 points overall), the No. 13 Minutewomen entered the fourth frame with a lead and this time held onto it for a 54-49 win over the N0. 12 Explorers.

The victory stood as UMass’ (5-26) second in a row, something it hasn’t done all season. The Minutewomen will be right back at it on Thursday against No. 5 Duquesne in the second round at 1:30 p.m. 

“The teams that just want it a little bit more here in these early round conference games are the teams that get it done, and I was proud of our team for being that group today,” UMass head coach Mike Leflar said.

A Bre Bellamy 3-pointer built UMass’ lead up to nine, 49-40, with four minutes, 37 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, giving the Minutewomen a chance to right their previous wrongs with an all too familiar situation.

But La Salle didn’t go away quietly, as it scored the game’s next six points and cut the deficit to just three while holding UMass scoreless for almost four full minutes.

Instead of collapsing under pressure however, the Minutewomen lineup of Hyduke, Alexsia Rose, Stefanie Kulesza, Bre Bellamy and Lily Taulelei closed things out with clutch defense and key makes at the free throw line.

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Chinenye Odenigbo put together one of her best games of the season for UMass, tallying 13 points and seven rebounds before exiting with an apparent head injury late in the game.

“We certainly made it interesting,” Leflar said. “I thought we lost a little bit of energy midway through, or even at the end of the second quarter... But that one group that was in there in the third and fourth quarter, I thought played great. They played together, moved the ball and kept La Salle at bay.”

La Salle ranks in the top 10 in the country in 3-point attempts per game, and it certainly wasn’t shy on Wednesday. The Explorers jacked up 29 shots from behind the arc, several of them coming in the first half of the shot clock.

Leflar expected that coming in, so he ensured his team was prepared to sprint back on defense and at least contest those 3-point looks.

“I just think transition defense is huge, and it was huge for us today protecting the 3-point line,” Leflar said. “We know La Salle shoots a lot of 3s.”

Four UMass players scored in double figures. Hyduke and Odenigbo were the team’s leading scorers, while Kulesza and Rose each added 10 points for the Minutewomen.

Kulesza (13 rebounds) and Odenigbo got things started with a strong first half, helping UMass to a slim 22-20 advantage at the break. Hyduke took over in the second to propel UMass to consecutive wins after beating St. Bonaventure to end the regular season last week.

“I’m so pleased that we have the opportunity, and we’re playing with a little momentum,” Leflar said. “And that is a thing especially in March.”

The Minutewomen are in search for a third win in a row when they take on the fifth-ranked Dukes Thursday afternoon. A conference tournament victory isn’t just huge for helping Leflar build for future years to come, it’s also important because now UMass truly feels a part of the environment down in Virginia.

And it’s March, so anything can happen – last year’s No. 5 seed lost in the second round.

“It was so important, for me personally, for our program, that we won today, because now that we won, you really start to feel like it’s a tournament,” Leflar said. “We were the first game, and we had to bring our own atmosphere and energy, and that’s understandable. But now, just going back to the hotel, preparing in the hotel, it gives our team that tournament feel… I’m just happy we [get to] experience that.”