PHILADELPHIA Sometimes the score doesn’t tell the whole story.
Seconds after the University at Albany men’s basketball team fell to heavily favored Duke in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament Friday, 73-61, there was an aura of contentment surrounding Great Danes fans in Philadelphia for the game.
A section of purple and gold, which included new college president Robert Jones, was on its feet as the game slipped out of UAlbany’s grasp. The fans continued standing after the final buzzer to show their appreciation for the team.
“Even though we lost, we put up a good fight,” said Arnie Fischler, who drove from Queens for the game and was wearing a temporary tattoo of the team’s canine mascot on his forehead.
This was UAlbany’s first appearance in the tournament since 2007, when the Danes lost to the Virginia in their opening game. A loss the year before to national power Connecticut after leading for much of the game marked the team’s debut in the tournament, less than a decade after the college began competing at the Division I level.
The team received an automatic bid to this year’s March Madness by defeating the University of Vermont to win the America East Conference tournament.
Bright yellow shoes on the players, a spirited pep band, special commemorative purple shirts on the fans and the large venue contributed to a heightened atmosphere for the nationally televised game.
“We gave Duke a good scare,” Fischler said. “It was a great game to watch, always in it, never out of it, and they teased us a little at the end.”
The teasing was the back and forth exchange of buckets in the second half, as UAlbany tried to keep the deficit below 10 points. Foul trouble for Duke and some clutch 3-point shooting kept the hopes for a major upset alive until the final minutes.
UAlbany senior Greg Albert, who left Albany at 6 a.m. on one of four buses sponsored by the school, was reveling in the fact that his school, the 15th seed in the tournament’s Midwest Regional, had made a No. 2 seed sweat.
“We were down by six with four minutes to go, which is pretty good considering we were such big underdogs,” he said.
About 200 fans were brought to the game by the college’s buses. One bus had the lucky students who won a campus-wide lottery that had hundreds vying for 50 spots. The other three buses included fans and alumni who had tickets but needed a ride.
Albert was impressed by the contingent of UAlbany fans assembled for the game, especially considering they almost matched the presence of Duke fans, who are notorious for traveling with the team. Aside from the large section of alumni and students, the crowd was also sprinkled with purple and gold.
“We ended up traveling really well,” Albert said.
One of the bus riders was alum Don Weyand of Clifton Park. It had been a no-brainer to buy the tournament tickets that were made available to him because he is a season ticketholder.
After arriving in Philadelphia, Weyand met up with his son and a group of his friends, who had arrived hours before the bus.
“We were probably one of the first ones here,” said Sam Hollingsworth, who drove down from Manhattan with his roommate and was doing some tailgating before the game.
Despite not being a UAlbany alum, Hollingsworth said he felt a connection with the team because he attended SUNY Plattsburgh.
“The SUNY schools need to stick together,” he said.
Heading into the game, fans were realistic about the likely outcome, but with the Danes trailing by just nine points at halftime, some were thinking this might be UAlbany’s chance for an upset.
Emmanuel Oduor, a junior, was convinced the team could win if it just controlled Duke stars Mason Plumlee and Seth Curry. Keith Akita, a senior, believed the game was within reach if the Danes came out hard the first four minutes of the second half. Neither outcome was realized.
But ever the optimists, fans of UAlbany weren’t wallowing in the defeat and were instead looking forward to next year’s team. On the student bus before the return trip had even begun, there was chatter about the returning players.
Fischler said the three recent showings in the tournament made the team feel like it belongs on college basketball’s biggest stage.
“We expect to be back again. We have a good team coming back,” he said. “It’s going to be a good year next year.”