UMass basketball: Minutewomen look to halt skid on the road at Yale

By HANNAH BEVIS

Staff Writer

Published: 11-30-2023 5:07 PM

The UMass women’s basketball team returned from the Cancun Challenge with a little more of a tan and a lot to work on. 

It wasn’t a huge surprise that the Minutewomen went 0-3 in the tournament – they were going up against incredibly tough opponents, including No. 23 Washington State. But coming back from Mexico with a 1-7 overall record can be demoralizing, no matter how difficult the games are. 

But there’s still plenty of basketball left to be played, and head coach Mike Leflar said he’s seeing his team taking strides. He’s trying to keep the team in a positive headspace as they get back to business. 

“I said that I think our team is very frustrated and probably wondering why I was trying to be positive. But I wanted the trip to be as enjoyable as possible,” Leflar said on Wednesday. “I mean, we’re 1-7. I want us to keep hanging on because we are about to turn the corner as long as we keep working.” 

The players were frustrated to an extent, but it’s not like the trip was a waste of time. If anything, it was a confidence builder in some ways for a lot of players who hit career highs during that time. Stefanie Kulesza recorded a double-double against Washington State, and both Lily Taulelei (14 points) and Lilly Ferguson (8 points) hit career highs in points against Maryland. The losses weren’t ideal, but for the players, getting the opportunity to see what they could do against top-level opponents was worth the price of admission. 

“It was just a great experience to play against those teams, play against teams that are in the top 25. I'm really grateful that we did get to play them because I think it's really preparing us for conference play,” Kulesza said. “I'd rather play a really tough schedule and maybe not have the best record then just play a bunch of teams that we're going to go and blow out and not be prepared come January, February.” 

Both Ferguson and Kulesza mentioned Wednesday that they gained some confidence from seeing what they were capable of doing against top opponents. For sophomore Ferguson, who rode the bench most of last year and played a career high of three minutes against St. Peter’s prior to this season, it was especially rewarding to see that she could compete at a higher level. 

“I never thought we’d get a chance to play against some teams of that caliber. It was almost like really exciting to know that I could play again those teams,” Ferguson said. “Obviously they challenged me but I was able to work through it, I was able to push through it.” 

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But now the team turns their attention to Yale, which could be a very winnable game if the Minutewomen can clean up their game. The Bulldogs have won just one game, too, sitting at 1-6 after picking up their first win of the season over Marist, 61-45.

One of the key takeaways Leflar talked to his team about after the Cancun Challenge was limiting their turnovers – they gave the ball away a total of 59 times during their three games, averaging 19.5 turnovers a contest. The Minutewomen are focused less on what their opponent is going to bring to the table and more about cleaning up their own end of the floor, though they will be keeping an eye on Yale point guard Jenna Clark. The senior is averaging 36.3 minutes a game for Yale and leading the team with an average of 13 points and 6.4 assists per game.

“In terms of game plan for Yale, we have to get better at what we're trying to do… offensively, we just want to take open shots, every shot we take is contested. I've really held off talking about good shot, bad shot because I want them to play freely. But now we are starting to talk about – we need to move the ball and get open shots,” Leflar said. 

On the injury front, Chinenye Odenigbo and Avery Childers are both game-time decisions for the Minutewomen; they dressed for a couple of games during the Cancun Challenge. It’s also possible that Jermany Mapp returns after a shoulder subluxation injury that occurred at the end of the Green Bay game. Leflar wasn’t entirely certain of when she’d be able to return, but commented after their Maryland game that she might be on a similar timeline as Odenigbo and Childers.

The Minutewomen could have as few as seven players available and as many as 10 – they won’t know for sure until the team hits the court on Friday.

UMass will tip-off against Yale at 7 p.m. on Friday. The game will be available to stream on ESPN-Plus. 

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