Iati says Great Danes need to shore up defense

Veteran John Iati says the only thing that's holding UAlbany back now is its defense

Fifth-year senior guard Jon Iati is the bridge between an era when the University at Albany basketball program struggled as a new member of the America East Conference and the last two seaons, when the Great Danes won back-to-back league titles.

He knows what it takes to be a winning team, and he says this year’s version of the Great Danes needs to play harder on the defensive end every night. That will be the goal when UAlbany travels to Hartford’s Chase Arena at Reich Family Pavilion to take on the Hawks tonight at 7.

“We can’t be on a roller coaster every night,” said Iati, who was the conference rookie of the year when the Danes struggled to a 5-23 record in 2003-04. “I think everybody thought we had everything together after we won the Vermont and Stony Brook games, but then we played horribly against Binghamton at home last week. Then we come up with a big game at Boston Un­iversity.

“The problem is that we need to be more consistent, especially on the defensive end,” Iati added. “The No. 1 thing that made us a champ­ionship team the last two seasons was our defense. When our shots are not going in, the defense was always there for us the last two years. This year, when our offense is struggling, we haven’t been stepping it up on the defensive end. The defense kept us in games last year, and that’s what we need to remember this year when our shots aren’t falling.”

Iati has been an integral part of the Great Danes success over the last few years. Although he began his career as a starter, leading the nation in minutes played as a freshman, he’s been coming off the bench the last several seasons and has become one of the program’s all-time leaders in three-point baskets.

This season, he is the first guard off the bench for head coach Will Brown, but he’s been slowed recently because of turf toe.

“Everybody has bumps and bruises when you play as long as I have,” said the 5-foot-9 native of York, Pa. “I’ve been hurting for the last three or games or so, but it doesn’t

really bother me when I’m playing. It shouldn’t be a factor [tonight.]”

Iati got to know former UAlbany standout Jamar Wilson, the team’s all-time leading scorer, very well over the last few seasons, and he believes senior swingman Brian Lillis has become just as valuable for the Great Danes.

Lillis scored 27 points and grabbed 11 rebounds in the Great Danes’ 70-63 victory at Boston University Wednesday night. It was his second consecutive double-double. He also had 25 points and 11 rebounds in the Danes’ loss to Binghamton last Saturday. He scored a career-best 29 points in a victory over Vermont recently and scored 19 against Stony Brook. Against Boston University, he tied a school record with 15 free throws made.

“He’s playing a high level right now,” said Iati of Lillis. “We knew he was going to be one of our best players this year, but we didn’t expect him to have the kind of year he is having. He’s got to be the best player in the league right now. He’s getting a double-double every night, and he’s doing everything for us, including defending the other team’s best player and bringing the ball up for us. He’s the catalyst for us in every game, and is having an unbelievable year.”

Lillis tops the 3-2, 8-9 Great Danes in scoring at 16.1 ppg. Junior forward Brian Connelly is next at 10.4 ppg, followed by senior forward Brent Wilson (9.6 ppg) and Iati (8.2 ppg).

Hartford (2-1, 8-10) is coming off a last-second 86-85 loss to University of Maryland Baltimore County. The Hawks are paced by soph­omore guard Joe Zeglinski (15.0 ppg), and 6-6, 250-pound junior forward Warren McLendon (14.0 ppg, 4.9 rpg).

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