Three things to know about Notre Dame women's opponent UMass

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent
Massachusetts' Sam Breen, left, holds up her championship t-shirt following the second half of an NCAA college basketball championship game against Dayton in the A10 Conference Tournament Sunday, March 6, 2022, in Wilmington, Del. Massachusetts won 62-56. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)

Here are three things to know about the 12th-seeded Massachusetts Minutewomen (26-6), slated to face No. 5 seed Notre Dame (22-8) at 7:30 p.m. Saturday (ESPN2) in a first-round NCAA Tournament game in Norman, Okla.:

► UMass is led by its first-ever Atlantic 10 Conference Player of the Year, grad student forward Sam Breen, a particularly familiar face to one Irish assistant.

The 6-foot-1 Breen is averaging 16.4 points and 10.5 rebounds to pace the Minutewomen in each, besides ranking second in both assists (2.8) and steals (1.7).

A native of Gibsonia, Pa., Breen played for current ND assistant Coquese Washington at Penn State before transferring midway through the 2018-19 season.

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She has stepped up her game in each season at UMass, earning All-A10 second-team honors in 2020 and a first-team nod in 2021.

A threat from a variety of spots, Breen owns a 46.3% effective field goal percentage, though the relative weakness in that efficiency rate is on 3-pointers, where she’s at just 29.3% on almost four tries per outing.

► UMass, which won an A10 Tourney for the first time ever to secure an automatic bid, is making its first NCAA Tournament appearance in 24 years.

That’s in stark contrast to the Irish, who ran off 24 straight appearances from 1996 to 2019.

Massachusetts' Sam Breen, right, battles with Dayton's Kyla Whitehead, center, for the ball during the first half of an NCAA college basketball championship game in the A10 Conference Tournament, Sunday, March 6, 2022, in Wilmington, Del. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)

The Minutewomen are still seeking their first-ever NCAA Tourney win, too, while ND has 67 of those against 24 losses.

Overall, UMass is making its third appearance, with the previous two coming as an at-large selection. In 1996, the Minutewomen lost 60-57 as an eighth seed to No. 9 seed Michigan State, and in 1998, they fell 77-59 as a 13th seed to No. 4 seed Iowa.

UMass, which was playing in its 40th A10 Tourney, upset Dayton 62-56 in the title game for this year’s automatic spot. The Flyers were regular-season champs of the 14-team league at 14-1, while the Minutewomen placed third at 11-4.

► UMass senior Jessica Nelson is the younger sister of Kristina Nelson, who helped Notre Dame capture the 2018 national title.

Notre Dame senior Kristina Nelson (21) takes a selfie with the trophy after the National Championship victory over Mississippi State on April 3, 2018 in Columbus, Ohio. Nelson's younger sister Jessica is a member of UMass's program, the ND first-round NCAA opponent on Saturday night.

Jessica hasn’t played since her 2018-19 freshman season, medically retiring from basketball in 2020 because of extended knee issues, but remains involved in all team functions, according to school spokesperson Hana Johnson.

She averaged 4.2 points and 3.5 rebounds as a freshman and was chosen as a co-captain the following season despite not being able to play.

Kristina “Koko” Nelson was typically the first player off the bench — and sometimes the only one — during ND’s push to its 2018 championship in her grad-student season, averaging 5.2 points, 3.2 rebounds and shooting 62% from the field.

Koko’s now in her first full season as director of recruiting at Vanderbilt, where the Commodores on Sunday received their first postseason bid, to the WNIT, since 2014.