UMass basketball: Minutewomen set for opener against Saint Peter’s with entirely new look

Dallas Pierce (14) fires up a shot for the UMass women’s basketball team during Mullins Madness last month in Amherst.

Dallas Pierce (14) fires up a shot for the UMass women’s basketball team during Mullins Madness last month in Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

By HANNAH BEVIS

Staff Writer 

Published: 11-05-2023 6:00 PM

There are lots of question marks still surrounding the UMass women’s basketball team this year, but one thing is certain – this season’s squad is going to look a lot different than last year. 

Head coach Mike Leflar replaced former head coach Tory Verdi, who left UMass after seven years to take the head coaching job at the University of Pittsburgh. Leflar had served as Verdi’s associate head coach since 2021 and was the program’s assistant coach since 2018. 

In what was likely a direct response to Verdi’s departure, most of last year’s team left with him, entering the transfer portal and leaving just three returning players – Stefanie Kulesza, Kristin Williams and Lilly Ferguson. All five of the team’s starters left, with Sam Breen and Destiney Philoy graduating and Sydney Taylor, Ber’Nyah Mayo and Angelique Ngalakulondi transferring to different schools. 

What remains is an entirely new-look team – new coaching staff, new captains, new players, new style. It's hard to know exactly where the team will fare against fellow Atlantic 10 teams when conference play roles around. UMass will open its season with a home game against Saint Peter’s on Monday at 6 p.m. Fans can watch the game on NESN-Plus.

Things have been somewhat business as usual for Leflar, who’s entering his sixth year now with the team. While he’s technically got a new title, much of what he’s doing in practices and during the exhibition game are the same things he’s been doing for years, drawing up plays and working with players. He’s relied on his experience, along with the returners in Kulesza, Ferguson and Williams, to help build up the team they have now. 

“They were really helpful in the recruiting process because they knew me and they knew UMass, even though the environment would be different and they didn't know how,” Leflar said. “I'll forever be indebted to Lilly and Kristin and Stef, for their help during the transition and their buy-in during the transition.”

The team enters the start of the season slightly behind the eight ball – though they picked up a win in their exhibition game against Assumption, five of the team’s 13 players won’t be available for the first game due to injury. The eight players who are healthy – Kulesza, Ferguson, Williams, Dallas Pierce, Lilly Taulelei, Jermany Mapp and captains Tory Hyduke and Bre Bellamy – are going to be relied on heavily while the rest of the team recovers. 

Even if the team was entirely healthy, Leflar sounds like he’s going to be playing more by committee this year than Verdi did in the past. During Verdi’s last couple of seasons, it was rare for more than six, maybe seven players to see the floor in any given game — Verdi relied heavily on his starters and Makennah White. Leflar wants this team to be one that plays as a group, not relying on one or two specific players. 

Article continues after...

Yesterday's Most Read Articles

Yankee Candle consolidation prompts loss of 100 jobs
Demographic changes fuel enrollment fears at UMass
South Hadley board sets dangerous hearing for dog that killed another
Ashfield Lake House reopening under new ownership, management
High-speed police chase in Hadley ends in crash, arrest on Hampton Inn lawn
Building 8 Brewing closing after 9-year run in Florence

“We want to play fast when we can, and I think our strength has to be our ball and player movement. Our strength is not going to be like isolation, one-on-one, we always have the most talent on the floor. I just want the ball to move, I want to win by committee in a lot of ways,” Leflar said. “If all four or five players on the floor even scored in double figures, I would love to have a different leading scorer each game. That's got to be our strength and confidence.” 

So far, so good for the Minutewomen in that case – Kulesza posted a double double in the team’s exhibition game against Assumption, putting up 19 points and 15 boards, but three other players hit double figures in points in Williams (14), Taulelei (14) and Pierce (12). 

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