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The Right Spot

Sam Breen ’21, ’22MEd learns to love the game again

Seth Landman '04, '08MFA
Photos by
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A person in a UMass basketball uniform stands on an empty court, looking over her shoulder towards the camera and holding a basketball under their arm.

Sam Breen ’21, ’22MEd in her natural habitat.

Sam Breen has, as her head coach Tory Verdi puts it, “an uncanny ability to find the ball.” In December of 2020, during Breen’s first full season at UMass Amherst, that ability was on display in the Mullins Center against St. John’s.

With the game tied and only seconds remaining, Breen tipped a missed free throw to her teammate Sydney Taylor ’23. Taylor missed the shot, but Breen grabbed the rebound and scored at the buzzer for the win. It was a miraculous play, emblematic of what makes Breen’s game so special.

“That’s where I find myself a lot,” Breen marvels, “being at the right spot at the right time.” After a successful career at North Catholic High School in Cranberry Township, Pennsylvania, during which she scored 2,488 points, Breen barely played in her college seasons at the Pennsylvania State University. Her confidence and love for the game of basketball had faded.

Breen decided to add her name to the NCAA’s transfer portal. Immediately, Verdi knew she was exactly what UMass needed. Breen didn’t want to move far from home, but reluctantly agreed to visit UMass. “I know a lot of coaches say they’re family oriented, and some of them definitely mean it,” says Breen, “but when I got here all the coaches and the staff just really cared about who you were as a person and a player, and that really stood out to me because I didn’t necessarily have that before.”

For Verdi, that caring is part of his values. “Transparency, overcommunication, and love and respect. Those are the cornerstones of our program. I think Sam felt that right away when she stepped on campus. I just listened to Sam and asked her what she needed from me as a head coach. She needed somebody who really believed in her.”

With that support, Breen found her love for the game again at UMass. “When I first got here, I was more quiet. I would be happy, but you wouldn’t really see it, like I wouldn’t celebrate all the small things.” Now, she makes sure she’s always talking on the court and celebrating the successes. “I can’t walk by somebody and not high-five them,” she says.

Breen has learned a lot off the court, too. After finishing a sociology degree, she decided to use her remaining years of eligibility to complete a master’s in education. Now she’s completing certificate programs in social work and criminology.

Breen serves on the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, is one of her team’s captains, and—maybe most joyfully—takes care of her dog, Turbo. It all adds up to a lot of growth: “Since coming to UMass I’ve learned a lot of responsibility that I didn’t know I needed to learn.”

I can’t walk by somebody and not high-five them.

Verdi predicts Breen “will go down as the best player to ever play here when she’s done.” Building on last season’s unprecedented team success, the team won the Atlantic 10 Championship for the first time, made the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1998, and Breen was named Atlantic 10 Women’s Basketball Player of the Year.

After this season, Breen plans on letting her rekindled excitement for the game carry her for a while. “I want to play overseas for as long as I can—for as long as my body will let me,” she says. She’s excited to travel around the world and make a living playing the game she loves.

“I like making relationships that will last after basketball’s done,” she says. “That’s something that’s definitely important to me, not just in basketball but in life.”

In February 2023, Sam Breen became the highest scorer in UMass women’s basketball history, tallying 1,859 points. She is one of only four basketballers in UMass history to have 1,000 points and 1,000 rebounds to their name. And, in 2023, she was named Atlantic 10 Women’s Basketball Player of the Year for the second year in a row.