Young Great Danes appear ready to climb out of league basement

Weary of being the America East Conference’s doormat, the University at Albany women’s basketball te
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Weary of being the America East Conference’s doormat, the University at Albany women’s basketball team has some new weapons and a new attitude.

“We always said that we had a good team. I believed in our players, and our chemistry is just clicking right now,” said UAlbany head coach Trina Patterson, whose Great Danes not only defeated Maine 78-46, for the first time in program history Sunday, but also stretched their winning streak to three games, their longest since 2004-05.

Despite a tough non-conference run, UAlbany (4-11) is off to a 2-0 start in the America East comp­etition for the first time since the team joined the league in 2001. The Danes finished tied for last in the league last season, and have won only one conference postseason tournament game.

Albany, which forced 30 Maine turnovers, leads the league in turnover margin. Speed and athleticism up and down the lineup has finally helped the Great Danes turn the corner.

“It took us a while to get going this season because we have so many new players. Although we have a core of veteran players like Kristin Higy and Gia Sanders, many of our players are in new roles,” said Patterson. “It takes time to get accustomed to what we’re doing.”

According to Patterson, this version of the Great Danes is the most physically gifted group that she has ever coached.

“The difference with this year’s team is that this is the most athletic team we’ve had,” she said. “Just because you’re athletic doesn’t mean you’re going to win, necessarily, but it means you have the ability to do some different things that you couldn’t do before. For example, our footspeed at every position is much better. Against many of the teams in our league now, we are more athletic in three of the five spots on the floor. Against some teams, we are more athletic at all five positions. If you can win the battle at three of those five pos­itions, you’re in good position.”

Patterson likes to compare her group of speedsters to the skill position players in football.

“Britney McGee is like our quarterback. She has become more comfortable at the point guard position, and she puts the ball where it has to be,” Patterson noted.

“Charity [Iromuanya] and TaNika [Thrower] are like lightning bolts. They are very quick, and are just like wide receivers out at the wing. We use football anal­ogies all the time with this team. And just like a football team, we’ve been winning the turnover battle recently.”

Against Maine, the Great Danes recorded 15 steals. They also made 15 steals in a 62-52 win over New Hampshire in their previous game.

“We actually intimidated Maine with our press,” Patterson said. “When coaches look at the stat sheet and see how many turnovers we are forcing, they know they have to prepare for our press. We had a 20-2 lead after the first 16 minutes against Maine, and much of that was because of our press. Maine is a lot better team than it showed, but our ability to force turnovers changed the game completely around in our favor.”

McGee, a 5-foot-8 sophomore from Bakersfield, Calif., leads the Great Danes in scoring at 11.3 points per game. Higy, a 6-1 senior post player from Akron Ohio, is next at 11.1 ppg to go along with 5.8 rebounds per game.

Sanders, a 6-0 senior guard/forward, averages 7.0 points and a team-best 5.8 rebounds. She is also among the best shot blockers in team history. She has 22 blocked shots this season and 29 steals.

“We are great at getting up and down the floor,” said Patterson. “We just have so many good athletes now. Charity and TaNika are speedsters on the wing with good shooting touches, and Gia, who has always been our best all-around athlete, has really stepped up her game. We also have Joyce Sterling coming off the bench, and Sherri Mikus is another excellent athlete. Even our center, Kiersten Peterson, may be the fastest center on the East Coast. She’s fast and a quick jumper, plus she’s picked up some strength.

“We have upgraded our athlet­icism at so many positions now. That’s one of the reasons we were able to get a 14-point lead at Ind­iana this year, but we couldn’t hold the lead. We have the athletes, and we’re finally getting our confidence going, as well.”

The Great Danes are averaging almost as many points (62.1 ppg) as they give up (62.2), which is quite a feat, considering their overall record.

“The players are finally buying into our system,” said Patterson, whose team visits Vermont on Wednesday. “They know that our press can be used as their offense. When we turn the ball over that much, it leads to a lot of easy baskets. At least, they know they have some part of their game that they can depend upon and works every night.

“Our players are very upbeat right now. We have a lot of con­fidence. I’ve had confidence in them right along, but now they have confidence in each other. They believe in themselves, and in their teammates. They don’t get too bent out of shape when things go wrong. That’s the sign of a true team. I think it’s all coming together at the right time. You’re judged with how you do in your conference.”

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