UMass basketball: Minutewomen looking for answers as they head to Mexico for Cancun Challenge

Stefanie Kulesza and the UMass women’s basketball team head to Cancun, Mexico for a three-game tournament beginning Thursday.

Stefanie Kulesza and the UMass women’s basketball team head to Cancun, Mexico for a three-game tournament beginning Thursday. CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS

By HANNAH BEVIS

Staff Writer 

Published: 11-22-2023 4:42 PM

The UMass women’s basketball team is hoping that a change of scenery might give them the boost they need to get back in the win column. 

The Minutewomen (1-4) are headed to Cancun, Mexico to participate in the Cancun Challenge, a 10-team tournament that begins Thursday. UMass is slated to play three games in three days against Green Bay (2-1), Washington State (5-0) and Maryland (2-2). They won’t be easy games – Green Bay recently downed No. 22 Creighton 65-53, No. 23 Washington State is 5-0 and has won all but one of its games by 12 points or more, and Maryland blasted Harvard 98-75, the same Harvard that toppled UMass 78-57 a week ago.

Their first game in the event will come against Green Bay on Thanksgiving Day at 1:30 p.m. All tournament games are available to stream on FloHoops.

Not much has gone right for the Minutewomen after their first win of the season against Saint Peter’s. UMass is riding a four-game skid going into the Cancun Challenge, dropping games to Maine, Northeastern, Harvard and Monmouth. What’s made some of the losses tough to swallow is that the Minutewomen have, at times, shown flashes of the team they can be, threatening comebacks and keeping step with their opponents for spells. In their 12-point loss to Monmouth, the Minutewomen held a 56-54 lead with less than six minutes to play, but slow starts and an inability to finish have plagued UMass, and left head coach Mike Leflar looking for answers early in the season.  

“I am proud of their fight and I'm never not going to be proud of their fight and their fight back... we can be proud of the fight, but we can also be a little bit angry with the result,” Leflar said after the Monmouth game. “And I have to look in the mirror and see how I can get us off to a better start. I shared that with the team and I'm hoping that they'll reflect on it and think about it, because we've gotten off to two really tough starts three of our last four games. The fight is there but we have to get off to better starts.”

This is still a team that’s trying to build chemistry after returning just three players, and its also a team that’s still trying to get healthy — five players are currently out with injuries. Leflar hasn’t said when to expect any of them back, and though he said after their St. Peter’s win that two unnamed players were back doing workouts, that was two and a half weeks ago and neither has jumped back in the lineup.

Stefanie Kulesza and Kristin Williams, two of the teams returning players, have been bright spots offensively, leading the team in points, and Kulesza in particular has been a stalwart in the paint as she’s secured two double-doubles in five games. Lilly Taulelei has been another reassuring presence in the post – as the New Zealand native has become more accustomed to the style of play in the United States, she’s gotten stronger, putting up a season-best eight points and tying her season-best three rebounds in the loss to Monmouth. 

But Leflar has said in a post-game press conference that he doesn’t want to get used to moral victories. This is a rebuilding year for the Minutewomen, but they’ll need to learn quickly in order to get back in the win column. That comes from focusing on one thing – the controllables. 

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“It's the controllables, it's can we get better?” Leflar said. “We're going to travel early Tuesday down to Cancun. We'll practice in Cancun Tuesday, Wednesday, and it'll be just two days of helping us get better, helping us run our stuff better, getting more organized, on the same page. And I think that's that's all we can control.”

Hannah Bevis can be reached at hbevis@gazettenet.com. Follow her on Twitter @Hannah_Bevis1.